Tempus fugit

Tempus Fugit

(Time Flies)

They should still be preschoolers

singing in the children’s choir

round-faced cherubs, both

ever so serious.

Time flies.

Or

children on vacation

tasting salt on their tongues, brine in the wind

with sand on their toes, in their hair

eating pickles from a jar.

Time flies.

Or

teenagers at Bojangles’

laughing, cutting up

marching in the band, going to the prom

still singing the old hymns together.

Time flies.

Or

college kids, going their separate ways

friends temporarily parted

by finding their own paths, until

one ended on a fresh spring night.

Time flies. 

She wrote that he was part

of her favorite childhood memory.

On the eve of her funeral, he dreamed

he heard her singing

of the ocean.

Time flies

Time flies

Time flies.

*******

One year ago today, my younger son (the Cadillac man) lost his childhood friend in an accident. 

She was eighteen. 

Fatherlove

Corgi

“Waiting …” jmcmichaelCC BY-SA

When I write personal narrative, memoir, and even realistic fiction across elementary grade levels, I usually give students choices of topic for the writing I’ll model. Many times they’ve chosen for me to write about my dad not wanting any pets when I was growing up, despite my desperate begging for them.

Students rejoice when I overcome my dad to get a dog or a cat.

One of the things I haven’t fully explored with the children is why my dad didn’t want pets. Truth is, it took years for me to fully understand . . . 

That’s where I’m going today.  

To set the stage, here’s a modeled excerpt, the scene when my mom, my sister and I have brought not one but TWO puppies home from our neighbors’ house across the street. It’s getting time for my father to arrive from work, and he has no idea we have these puppies:

“Will he make us take them back?” my sister whimpers. She has her puppy, Bagel, wrapped in a pink doll blanket. She cradles him in her arms like a baby.

“I don’t know,” says Mom. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

She sort of sticks her chin out when she says that.

The three of us sit in the living room, waiting, and when I hear the car door slam, I jump. I hold my puppy, Onyx, so close I can smell his puppy breath.

He’s home! What will he say? Will he yell?

I can hear his work shoes coming up the steps. I watch the doorknob turning . . .

Here he is, in his blue uniform with the white hard hat on his head, his big, gray lunchbox in his hand. He looks at us.

He sees the puppies.

He wrinkles up his face: “What in the . . . ”

“Surprise, Daddy!” yells my sister, holding Bagel up high in the air. “We got you some puppies!”

Suffice it to say the man knew when he was outnumbered. And defeated.

Bagel, the collie-colored, long-haired dachshund mix, was still with us when I got married.

As was Moriah, my black cat: 

Free kittens.

Take one.

The sign stood on a chair beside a disheveled guy leaning against the wall at the college bookstore entrance. This guy—another student, I guess—held a cardboard box in his arms. Kittens! I hurried over to look inside.

Only one dark, little shape huddled in the box.

“Is that the last kitten you have?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied. “No one wants her because of her tail.”

“What’s wrong with her tail?”

The guy scooped the kitten up and showed me her backside. She didn’t really have a tail, just a stump.

“What happened to her?” I wanted to know.

“She was born this way. The only one in the litter like this.”

The tiny black kitten looked up at me with her big yellow eyes.

She meowed.

She rode on my shoulder as I drove home wondering exactly how to approach Daddy.

“Please,” I said, clasping her close to my heart, where she purred against me. “No one else wanted her. I’ll keep her in my room.”

You’re allergic to cats!” he thundered. “Find somewhere for her to go!”

I didn’t, and once again, my poor father was defeated.

Moriah developed an endearing habit of running up the leg of my jeans and my shirt to my shoulder, where she liked to ride while I walked around. 

 One day, my father roared from the bathroom: “FRRAAAANNCESSSS!”

My whole first name. 

Yeah.

Had to be something really bad.

I flew down the hall to find him hunched over the bathroom sink. He’d been shaving. White cream all over his face.

When he shaved, he never wore a shirt.

Moriah, watching him, had decided his shoulder looked inviting.

She ran up his leg and his bare back to his shoulder, where she was now hanging precariously by her nails. Embedded in Daddy’s pink skin.

GET-THIS-CAT-OFF-OF-ME!” shouted Daddy. His blue eyes, reflected in the mirror, blazed at me. (Note: He actually said a few  more words than this. I’ve chosen to censor.)

I extracted my cat and we hid for days, until Daddy’s scratches healed.

Two years later, when I was about to be married, the apartment where I’d be living had a no-pet policy. I couldn’t take Moriah.

The night before the wedding, I handed her collar to my dad. “She’s yours now, Daddy.”

Here’s the crazy part: He looked pleased. He kind of half-smiled. 

Weeks afterward, my mother told me on the phone: “Your dad buys turkey at the deli for Moriah. He tears it up in tiny pieces and puts it in a dish for her.”

“He—WHAT?” 

He did it for Moriah until she was gone. Then he said, “That’s it. The last of the pets.” 

Until my mother brought home a little Shih Tzu. She named her Bridget.

Daddy grumbled for months, but was soon buying deli tidbits for Bridget, too. 

When I was expecting my first baby, I came home for a visit, and Daddy told me this story: “When you were born, your mom and I had a cat. A big, orange tabby named Tiger. He kept getting in the crib with you and we worried you’d suffocate. I ended up having to take him to the pound. It was terrible. I swore I’d never do that again.”

I looked at his face, this face that had frowned about pets all these years, saw the pain-shadow cross over it.

All this time, I thought he was just being hardhearted. 

One night, Mom called. “Bridget died today,” she said.

“Oh no. Are you okay?'”

“I’m all right. Your dad buried her underneath his camellia bush.”

A pause. Then:

“He cried like a baby. I’ve never seen him sob like that before.”

My throat wrenches. Tears burn like fire.

Oh, Daddy. Daddy. I’m sorry for everything.

And there was one more dog to come, yet another that my mother brought home without warning. A Corgi.

Daddy sighed, complained, vented for weeks on end.

He named her Foxy.

He taught her tricks, played with her every day after work. Foxy knew when to expect him; she sat on the back of the sofa, watching through the picture window, waiting for him to come home.

Maybe it’s a case of saving the best for last, for, out of them all, Daddy loved Foxy best.

He never had to give her up, suffer her loss. 

She suffered his. 

For weeks on end, she sat at the picture window, watching for him. Sighing, whining. Day after day after day, waiting, forever waiting, for him to come home . . . 

Fatherlove.   

Released

There were two North Carolina sons who died on the same day.

One lived to be ninety-nine. 

The other lived nineteen days.

One is known the world over; his body will lie in the Capitol of the United States. 

The other is known only by a small community; his body weighed less than three pounds.

One accomplished great and mighty things; he is remembered, will be remembered, by generation after generation.

The other fought a great and mighty fight to stay alive, to grow; he was the start of a new generation. The first child, the first grandchild. 

There will be several commemorations for the one.

There was a small gathering of family and friends, clutching balloons, for the other.

A man old and full of days, as the Bible says, ravaged by time, and a new baby ravaged by arriving too early, they breathed their last around the same hour and left the world behind. 

Released. 

 I stood at the little gathering for the baby, holding onto the ribbon of a light blue balloon someone handed me.  

The North Carolina sun shone bright and uncharacteristically warm for February. It felt like spring. A breeze rattled the balloons; the sound of their bumping each other reminded me of boats bumping against their moorings at a dock. 

A lonely sound.

In one motion, together, our gathering released the balloons. Swept quickly upward, they made an array of shimmering colors against the azure sky. Breathtakingly beautiful. Within seconds they attained stunning heights. The brilliant colors changed, before our eyes, into distant glittering dots, bright, silvery stars twinkling in the daytime. 

I thought then of all who are loved and lost. The young and the old. By sickness, tragedy, time . . . it matters only that they lived. They were here and we loved them. We do not stop loving them. We rail against our constraints, but they are not tied anymore. Their moorings are loosed. Their spirits are free, glittering, ever-bright in the distance, going on and on.

Released.

Almost

It’s always there,

the ghost of Almost.

What might have been

but was not.

What should be

and isn’t.

Almost – ever how illusory, how ethereal

all but ephemeral –

is a penumbra bleeding from yesterday

into today,

a pulsing presence,

a ponderous weight,

despite its nonexistence.

A walking shadow,

the thief of Now

and its fullness,

the vacuum of Tomorrow

and all its possibility.

Inversion,

implosion.

Just images

without substance,

yet the mass of the universe

compacted

into one knot of aching.

That is the price

of living

with the pretty picture, 

the insatiably hungry, ever-gnawing

all-consuming 

ghost of Almost.

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

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

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

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

The game almost won.

The job almost attained.

The money almost saved.

The addict almost cured.

The temper almost controlled.

Almosts can go on and on.

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

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

If we let it.

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

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

Be ready to walk in it.

 

 

In-between places

Gloomy forest

Gloomy forest. gorchakov.artemCC BY

I read the final page and close the cover. The idea of being separated from someone you love intensely, whether by distance, time, or circumstances, comes with a stab so sharp that it almost isn’t bearable.

Never mind that The Time Traveler’s Wife is fiction. The frequent separation of Claire and Henry, especially their final one, is crafted with this piercing truth, the longing for the “in-between” period to be over so that the characters can be together again. Sometimes the interim lasted for years.

While Claire and Henry usually had the advantage of knowing the duration of their separations thanks to his time traveling, the rest of us don’t get such clear glimpses of the future. We have to endure the various in-between stages of our lives, not knowing how long they’ll last, not being able to speed up time, not knowing the outcome, often having little or no control.  These in-between places are often laced with deep aching, a sadness and desperation at being apart from someone we  love. Existence is as flat and barren as a desert. The emptiness is huge, frightening; we want to rid ourselves of it before it consumes us. The scope of this in-between-ness is too much for us. The loss cannot be dealt with as a whole but only lived through in chunks  – a day, maybe just an hour, at a time.

There are in-between places other than those of relationships. The loss of a job, long illnesses, hardships, disasters – all can be dark places that sap our strength, sometimes with no foreseeable guarantees that all will end well. Living in these situations is like navigating a dark, unfamiliar forest. Not knowing which way is the shortest or best way out, we often go in pointless circles without realizing it.

I recall an in-between place that’s quite different. It’s remained in my mind since I was a child, on my first reading of The Magician’s Nephew.

It’s called The Wood Between the Worlds.

In the attempt to move from our current world to another by wearing magic rings, two children land in a sort of “connector” place. Here’s how C.S. Lewis describes it:

It was the quietest wood you could possibly imagine. There were no birds, no insects, no animals and no wind. You could almost feel the trees growing . . . a pool every few yards as far as his eyes could reach. You could almost feel the trees drinking the water up with their roots. This wood was very much alive. When he tried to describe it afterwards Digory always said, “It was a rich place: as rich as plum-cake.” 

Digory discovers that he’s not frightened, excited, or curious. He’s forgetting why he’s there and what he knew of his own life, even his mother, who’s dying.

If anyone had asked him: “Where did you come from?” he would probably have said “I’ve always been here.” That was what it felt like – as if one had always been in that place and never been bored although nothing had ever happened. As he said long afterwards, “It’s not the sort of place where things happen. The trees go on growing, that’s all.”

Not the sort of place where things happen, but things go on growing around us while we are numb, sleepy. Who among us hasn’t experienced this?

Digory has an epiphany nevertheless – he tells his companion, Polly:

That’s why it’s so quiet and sleepy here. Nothing ever happens here. Like at home. It’s in the houses that people talk , and do things, and have meals. Nothing goes on in the in-between places, behind the walls and above the ceilings and under the floor, or in our own tunnel. But when you come out of our tunnel you may find yourself in any house. I think we can get out of this place into jolly well Anywhere!

Digory is right. The rest of the book deals with the results of his and Polly’s choices, both wise and foolish, but suffice it to say that they get out of The Wood Between the Worlds to witness the birth of a brand-new world.

Narnia.

Here’s another illustration, not out of fantasy.

My family once decided to travel from Raleigh, North Carolina to Boston by train. There was a problem with the train at the first segment of the trip – it had to be made by bus. Arriving at a different station, we boarded the train at last.

What we didn’t realize is that the train would stop at every major station on the East Coast even when no one was getting off or boarding. Long into the night we rode, stopping in deserted stations, sometimes for an hour or more. Bleary, exhausted, regretting our choice of transportation, we wondered how long this train would sit in this place where nothing was happening, and why.

I fell asleep.

The first light of dawn woke me. I looked through the train window at gray nothingness to see a shoreline slowly materializing. After having come through the unsightly backsides of major cities for most of the trip, this was unexpected. The sky turned pink, the sea rose-gold and sparkling, with the rising of the sun.

It was breathtaking, one of the most glorious sights I’ve ever seen.

After nineteen (eternal) hours on the train, we arrived in Boston.

The trip home was longer, as another train’s battery died and our train had to deliver a new one to them.

The point is that while the in-between places are static, and we often arrive in them for indeterminate stretches of time, they do serve a purpose. We can rage at the nothingness there, fervently railing at the passing of time, or sink into numb paralysis for the duration. Or we can see the in-between places as connectors, the temporary segue from one phase of our lives to another. Away from the energy, the hustle and bustle of life in this world, the in-between place may be one of needed rest, one of learning, reevaluating, recharging, restoring, until the path becomes clear and we can move on with living where the action is.

The next destination may not look like what we imagined.

It could, in fact, be far more glorious than we ever dared to hope.

Reflect: What in-between places have you experienced in life? What stories can you tell about enduring and getting through to the other side? If you are in an in-between place now – strength to you. It is temporary.  Reorient yourself; think, and begin preparing for what is waiting for you just ahead – be ready to meet it.

And write!

Suncatcher

Sun angel

Sun angel. Sheila SundCC BY

 Into each life some rain must fall
But too much is falling in mine
Into each heart some tears must fall
But some day the sun will shine
Some folks can lose the blues in their hearts
But when I think of you another shower starts
Into each life some rain must fall
But too much is falling in mine.

-Allan Roberts

Yesterday morning the sun beckoned from among striated clouds, streaking the sky with silver and gold. Birdsong—it’s a brand-new spring. The scent of fresh-cut grass from the day before lingers, and nothing takes me back to my childhood and my father quicker than that sweet green fragrance.

Even as the sun shone, a soft rain pattered down.

In my heart, in the hearts of my community, too much rain is falling.

Yesterday we buried a young lady who grew up here, was one of us, was an only child and grandchild. She was a college freshman, eighteen, a year younger than my second son, his childhood playmate and lifelong friend. She went to church with us all of her life, sang in the choir, and was beautiful. She caught the light and scattered it like a faceted gemstone quietly scatters tiny, vivid rainbows on objects close by.

Death, when it comes suddenly to someone so young and full of promise, can only be likened to a great ripping apart.

She is ripped away.

The church was full and overflowing an hour before the service. People stood around the walls of the sanctuary, packed the fellowship hall, lined every hallway on both sides throughout; a huge crowd waited outside because there was no more room.

My husband officiated. He was at the hospital the day this child was born. He ended the eulogy with a little twist of Shakespeare: “Good-night, sweet princess; and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

As the crowd walked to the burial site, the sun shone for all it was worth. The clouds were gone; a warm breeze ruffled dresses, suit jackets, hair.

Even so, the rain will fall within us for days and days to come, yet it doesn’t mean that our little suncatcher won’t keep catching and scattering the light in the quiet way she always did. More light than ever is reflected in the myriad drops of rain, like iridescent droplets of diamonds quivering with celebration that she lived, that she was a gift.

She will always be.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer