September whispers the first hint of autumn with a cool breath caressing our faces our bare arms and legs in the still-warm sun. Whispers an invitation to walk woodsy trails under trees communicating in rustling green tongues. One leaf already fallen crispy and brown cartwheels across the path. It is longer than we realized. One of us would push for a more vigorous pace but the other of us is tired. A restful respite in the almost-chilly tree-proffered shade just short of the bridge we didn’t know was here. Cicadas chorus high above a big black ant hurries past and somewhere a bird sings as if it is the very heart of all things. We’ve come this far. We walk a few more steps one a little ahead one leaning on a cane one breath at a time. Not until we reach the bridge can we hear the water talking to itself below in a wordless trickling flow going on and on and on. And so we do even though we can’t see how much path is left to travel nor what lies ahead around the bowery bend. The bridge cannot whisper invitation. It only stands offering silent invocation. It is enough. We cross over. We go on.
Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Tuesday invitation to write a Slice of Life and to my Spiritual Journey Thursday friends for the writing fellowship along the way. For more spiritual offerings see Karen Eastlund’s collated posts under “Finding Direction” at Karen’s Got a Blog! (Thank you, Karen, for hosting).
Just a little note this evening, as the sun begins its descent, glowing its most golden as it prepares to depart … really I must remind myself that it is the Earth turning away, not the sun itself. Which of us would reach longingly toward the last of that light, trying to hold what remains of the day, until encroaching shadows break our grasp … then, the dark. How many of us welcome it, so tired, so needing the sleep, so wrapping night like a thick velvet blanket around us, letting it shelter us, entomb us, savoring the peace and stillness in it … until we turn to first light and morning once more…
I am tired.
But so, probably, are you.
Today I walked through the empty halls of school. I could hear teachers’ voices in rooms as they met with kids online or recorded lessons. I could not hear the children. Through a hallway window, I caught a glimpse of many young faces on a large screen, interacting with the teacher—a virtual music lesson.
There’s something so eerie about it all. Haunting. The hollowness of the place, the distant, disembodied voices. Dystopian is the word that comes to mind. It’s like living in some novel we’d have been assigned to read in high school. But it’s real. It’s writing itself, bringing itself to life…
In snatches of conversation my colleagues discussed the reinvention of assessment for online administration, to determine what kids need, and what makes sense, and what is best for kids…
That line will not leave me. What is best for kids.
It’s a phrase we tossed around so loosely, before. “Let’s make decisions based on what’s best for kids…” but did we always?
I fired up my laptop, went to my little corner of a Google Classroom, and waited, thinking about those words: What is best for kids. Remembered playing games with a blindfold when I was a child. And waking in the night when the power’s gone out, having to feel my way through the dark…
Within moments, however, a cheery little face appeared. Beaming at me. A little voice asking if, before we read together, I could see something made for classwork today. This child—this very young child—splits his screen and presents to me. Then he asks if we will have time, when we are done reading together, for him to show me his dog.
I am sure, just then, that I feel the Earth turning. Steadily onward. Light mixing with shadows.
What is best for children is what it always was. That they feel safe. And loved. And valued. That they get to share things that matter to them. That there’s joy in learning. That they learn to do new things, some they might have thought they couldn’t. That their teachers do the same. That their teachers work together, help each other, and honor each other for the professionals they are. We may all be apart, but we must all pull together… reaching toward each other as we reach out to the kids.
The time goes so fast. My screen goes empty, the child disappears… and comes back with his dog.
It occurs to me that all three of us are smiling…the dog with his whole wiggly body.
Today will be tomorrow soon enough.
Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the opportunity to share on Slice of Life Tuesday.
Today I write with a group of friends for Spiritual Journey Thursday.
The word restore has been on my mind these days. More or less as a question: When will society, the economy, the country, the health of the globe be restored to pre-COVID-19 conditions? And what will that restoration look like? How changed or different will everything be?
I think on this a lot, as is there is a lot of time to think.
Naturally a well-known line from the Psalms also comes to mind: He restores my soul. It speaks of peace and confidence, of a daily trust. I watch the news, the frenzy of those in the medical profession, pleading on behalf of us all; the government having to count the cost of a shut-down economy as weighed against the life and well-being of its citizens; and everyone worried about having enough resources for coping. They’re all waging a mighty battle against an insatiable, tenacious, invisible pathogen.
While the rest of us watch from a distance, sheltered. Protected. Trusting that the decisions made for us will preserve us, restore us.
We wait in the stillness.
It brings the preceding line of Psalm 23 to mind: He leads me beside still waters.
I could make an analogy of a stormy, violent sea for the government, the medical field, and the stock market, in contrast to the majority of us waiting at home, by the still waters … but a story resurfaced in my memory instead.
Long ago, when I was about seven, I attended a church service where an older girl was baptized. She was perhaps twelve or so, a sweet and affectionate girl well-known and loved by the congregation. It was an exciting morning for the church … except that as this girl entered the baptistry, she was sobbing.
“I can’t do it,” she bawled. ” I can’t …”
Even as a seven-year-old, I knew she’d chosen to be baptized. She’d walked the aisle some weeks before and professed her faith. I knew the pastor made new members, including children, attend a series of classes to understand the tenets of the faith and the ordnance of baptism. I didn’t understand it all myself, not yet, but I knew this girl, garbed in a white robe, hovering at the steps leading down into the water, crying, wanted to act on her faith. I’d never seen anyone react this way to being baptized: Why’s she so scared?
I look back now and wonder: Was she simply afraid of water? Had she never gone swimming in a pool, as I had?
The water wasn’t deep. It wasn’t cold; it was heated to be comfortably warm. It wasn’t waves crashing on the shore, no dangerous undertow, just clear, still water.
Our pastor, a humble, middle-aged man, a former Navy pilot in WWII and a Bible scholar, stood in his own robe of white at the center of the baptistry. He reached out his hand: “It’s all right, Dear Heart. See, I’m here. It’s safe. You know I’m going to hold onto you.” When she stayed rooted to the steps, clinging to the hidden rail, our pastor waded over, put his arm around her, and led her into the pool.
He held her for a moment. We heard him whisper: “Are you ready?”
Loud sobs, but a nod of her little head.
He raised his hand heavenward:
“I baptize you, little sister, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit …”
She went under and just as quickly, he raised her back up.
“I DID IT!” she shouted, hair plastered to her head, wet face shining. “I DID IT!”
If ever there was a vision of radiant joy, that’s it.
The entire congregation wept, even seven-year-old me.
The tears return even now, remembering.
He leads me beside still waters. Sometimes through still waters. When we cannot see the bottom. When we’d really rather not descend into them, when we don’t want to get wet at all, when we fear not so much immersion but submersion: How long will we be under? Can we last?
He restores my soul. It is a matter of trust that, somehow, all will be well, that we will be raised back up, we will be led safely through.
For now, we wait in the stillness like water lilies … which, in the Tamil poetic tradition, happens to symbolize the grief of separation.
On the placid surface
rest the blooms
in waters still.
Their unseen roots
to the earth
And so we float
this strange baptism
to one another
by unseen roots
while time stands still.
Today, in my mind, in my heart, the word restore echoes over and over and over like a prayer.
A friend wanted to know if my family would like some face masks.
She is making them.
She sent us pictures of the fabric—she has bolts of it—for us to choose the prints.
Yesterday she and her husband pulled up in our driveway to drop off the masks. My husband and I went out to meet our friends, offering our thanks only in words, no hand-grasps or hugs … a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing … a few weeks back, we were all sitting around the dining room table here in the house, laughing and telling stories after a lasagna dinner. It seems long ago.
When will we be able to do so comfortably, again?
When I look at these masks, I see all that they represent. Shields in time of trouble. A friend channeling inertia into something productive, a practical means of battling an unseen enemy. Self-care spreading out like a blanket to cover others. Homemade love. Colorful patterns against the dark backdrop of our days.
These masks are artifacts of our times. Symbols of our story as we live it. And nothing connects humanity as much as story.
As I walked out to the driveway to receive these gifts, my grandmother’s voice echoed from across the years:
You won’t believe it, but where these woods are now used to be houses and farms, up and down this little road … when the Spanish flu came, it hit all but a couple of them … twelve people died in one week … Mama made pots of soup and Papa would carry it to their doors. He wouldn’t go in, of course …
Grandma wouldn’t have had living memory of this. When the influenza pandemic began in January 1918, she was only two. But she knew the stories. If my own memory serves me correctly, as I walked the tiny country cemeteries surrounding her homeplace, listening to her narratives of the people resting there—for she knew all their stories, and how they were connected— there was an unexpected commonality.
A death year. 1917.
That was before the Spanish flu.
Grandma nodded. There was a sickness before: They called it hemorrhagic fever. People would bruise and bleed from their noses and ears and eyes … a lot of people who tried to take care of the sick caught it and died, too …
She was hardly more than a baby then, a girl born and raised in a hard place in hard times, but here she stood, by the weather-worn stones under a cloudless blue sky, telling the stories seven decades later.
Because of story, these events are lodged in my memory a hundred years after they happened.
My father was Grandma’s first child, born during the Great Depression. Flour companies made their sacks with patterns and bright colors so people could make clothes out of them … look at my handmade face masks and tell me they aren’t reminiscent. A second child, my aunt, arrived with the war. Granddaddy moved the family from North Carolina to Virginia; he found work in the shipyard, where production increased to the point of cranking out ships in less than a third of the time it normally took. How can one not compare that to the scramble for mass production of ventilators today …
Grandma said: It was so hot that summer. I was miserable, being pregnant. I’d sit by the upstairs window and watch the iceman delivering blocks of ice to grocers … companies stopped making refrigerators … everything went into the war effort. I just cried. I’d have given anything for some of that ice … then we had ration cards and could only get certain things at certain times … once my sister Jack and her husband pooled their gas ration cards with ours and we all went on a trip to Massachusetts … it was so beautiful and so cool there …
I look at these masks and that is what I see.
The story of overcoming. Of determination. Of resourcefulness in time of scarcity. Of finding a means to be a good neighbor, a good friend, a real and present help in time of need, even if from a safe distance. Sharing so that everyone has enough. Acts of service, gifts of love. Sacrifice.
The road is long With many a winding turn That leads us to who knows where Who knows where …
—”He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” B. Scott/B. Russell
I think this may be my favorite picture of you. For several reasons. I like to see you in such a peaceful setting, walking that country path beside lush green fields, under the blue summer sky. You were walking with a friend, so you weren’t alone. You told me that her puppy followed you—I still can’t believe that’s just a puppy; he’s massive!—and he got tired, so you picked him up and carried him the rest of the way.
That is why I love the photo so much. It captures the essence of who you are.
Quietly bearing your burdens, no matter how heavy. There have been many in these past few years. Ever how burdened you were, ever how twisted and dark the pathbecame, you kept on walking.
No one knows better than I what a long, long road it’s been, from the day you started college to now. Graduation being canceled, just when the end is in sight, feels like a coup de grâce.
It all started off on such a high note, didn’t it? Getting that phone call two weeks after you finished high school, a church looking for a music director. Your childhood dream. I still have your kindergarten “All About Me” book with the prompt ‘When I grow up, I want to be’ … where you drew yourself as a choir director in crayon.You attained it at seventeen, before your formal training even began.
That summer was glorious and brief.
That fall you started college and almost instantly the shadows came.
Your father‘s diagnosis of ocular melanoma, the loss of his eye, the weeks waiting for pathology to reveal no cancer cells had spread.Despite your new job and your courseload, you stepped up to help him readjust.
On the heels of his healing came Ma-Ma’s stroke, the beginning of her slow decline over the rest of that year. She knew how much you loved her. She treasured every minute with you; she savored every long phone call you made from the time you were little. She couldn’t keep from crying whenever you played the piano and sang—remember how she organized for you to come play at her nursing home, near the last?I will never forget her wet, shining face. She was inordinately proud of you. She loved you fiercely.
How grateful I am that you and your dad were there, holding her hands, when she died.
And so you bore her loss on top of an unexpected one.
I know you’re marking the date. Three years ago today, the accident that took your friend. Your little childhood playmate who sang with you in preschool choir, your high school band mate, the organizer of the Sunday-nights-at-Bojangles gatherings. As I write, I hear her pure, high voice echoing in the church to your harmony and piano accompaniment. Her going left all of us reeling—a swift, severe, deep cut to the heart, a knotty scar we’ll bear forever. And yet you play on. You still sing. You stand by her family in their remembrances, your presence the only comfort that’s in your power to give. She would be graduating, too, this spring … but no one is graduating this spring …
It’s one of the hardest things in life, losing people, and not only to death. People will come and go because they choose to, no matter how much we wish they’d stay. You endured this, too, with uncommon grace, never lashing out, just walking on with your invisible pain. I knew it was there. I could feel the weight of it.
Seems we were due a respite, and if there was one, it was those few weeks of vacation last summer before your dad’s heart attack. You and I had just come home from walking when the officer arrived in the driveway to say your dad’s truck had run off the road and hit a tree, it might have been a medical event, maybe a seizure, no, he wasn’t sure what condition your father was in, EMS was working on him when he left, and did we have a way to get to the hospital? With your big brother too distraught to drive, you did it. Calmly, carefully, you drove us to the emergency room where the nurse met us at the door. You were beside me when she ushered us to the little room where the doctor met us to say your father had been resuscitated and was being prepped for heart surgery.
You were there with me that first night of sleeping on the waiting room chairs, not knowing what tomorrow would bring. You were there with me throughout that long week of his hospitalization, until your dad came home, battered, bruised, trying to recover his memory. You got his prescriptions so that I wouldn’t have to leave him … and when I took him back to the ER with chest pains a couple of weeks later, you met us there. Another hospital stay. Another heart surgery. Two more weeks of sleeping in the hospital. Do you remember the surreality of it all? How we felt like it would never end, like we were caught in the web of the wrong story, a movie with a terrible plot twist we didn’t see coming? How could this be?
Somehow you managed to keep your studies up, only leaving for your classes and your church services, making the music and leading the worship for others.
So here we are, at last. Your dad, recovered and restored … able to drive me back and forth to work with my broken foot … until this tiny pathogen bent on world domination closed the schools. Here you are, completing your final weeks of college online, being denied the walk to receive the reward of all your labors …it is unthinkable.
I think about the whole of your young adult life. How your road has been so long, with many a winding turn, through many a dark shadow. I watched how you went around, through, or over every obstacle on this arduous journey. You’ve endured what might have caused others to quit college, others who might have actually enjoyed their studies; I know you never loved the “game” of school and that for you it’s been a test of endurance, in itself. But the end is in sight—despite a pandemic. A plague. Who’d have ever believed, in our time …
You have come this far, bearing every heavy load. You’ve carried on. Often you, the baby of the family, carried the rest of us. You’ve fought internal battles for your own wellness more than anyone else knows; in this spiritual war, you’ve earned a Medal of Honor for exceptional valor. I know it and God knows it, Son. I stand in awe of your heart, full of love and mercy, so self-sacrificial, so willing to lighten others’ burdens as your own grew heavier. Like carrying a giant puppy during a long walk on a hot summer’s day, because it got tired.
That is why I love this picture. It is your story.
There are no words for how much I love you.
Keep walking, Son. Carry on.You are strong.
I am stronger because of you. Soon my foot will be well enough to walk with you again.
When we come through this present ominous shadow, college will be over, we’ll find ourselves in a whole new chapter in our lives, and we’ll celebrate all of it. Just a little farther along … I know that in your quiet way, you’ve already made your peace with it. I can almost hear you singing:
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun And I say it’s all right...
We went anyway, my husband and I, on this dark Sunday.
Sanctuary silence. Stillness. Social distance.
But still a sermon, for social media.
A few friends, who filmed.
Here’s the preacher
in spite of the scares
here he is
saying our prayers
No hymns, no music, no choir except birdsong beyond the hallowed halls:
I sing because I’m happy I sing because I’m free
An ill wind moaning under the eaves, an unseen person pulling on locked doors:
I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger Traveling through this world below There is no sickness, toil, or danger In that bright land to which I go…
I went to see. Found no one but me. The sky so moody, the day so broody, like forces dark. Sickness makes its mark. It lurks nearby and that is why—no immunity, no community, Day of Prayer, no one there. In the shadow of the steeple, no people; it’s safer to be home. The Vatican says there’ll be no Easter services in Rome.
Penitents without one plea. Lenten lament, mourning this morning.
Morning has broken like the first morning Blackbird has spoken like the first bird Praise for the singing Praise for the morning Praise for them springing fresh from the world
The songbirds sing, the recorder runs, Scripture is spoken.
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Only an interlude of isolation. Will be our preservation.
My husband, the preacher, prays without his congregation.
I bow, and feel a sudden warmth from the stained-glass.
The sun, at last.
Quotations: “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple” nursery rhyme, adapted; John 8:12.
Hymns: His Eye Is on the Sparrow, Wayfaring Stranger, Morning Has Broken