The givers


Remembering people
across the years
with a mixture
of awe, gratitude,
and humility
for often those who
gave me the most
had the least
to give

materially,
at least

I don’t recall
every gift now
only the bright joy
on the faces
of the givers

there is
no calculating
the vast riches
in their hearts
or the price
of their generosity

only that it lives on
long after them

I still hold
their greatest gold:

sacrificial love

Widow’s Mite – Ancient Roman Bronze Coins. IronRodArt – Royce Bair (‘Star Shooter’). CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Autumn glory

This morning
was glorious

the strange autumn slant of light
catching the red-gold-orange flames
of trees, reaching their limbs
up to a brooding gray sky
meeting still-green fields
at the horizon

such a study in color
that I, mere mortal observer,
lost myself in the awe
of indescribable beauty

I could have lived
a thousand years
and not lost my breath
as I did this morning

marveling
wondering
at how such a beautiful world
can be so broken

Autumn Landscape. blmiers2CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

2021: A year of awe

Some people call it one word. Others call it one little word, abbreviated OLW. Either way it’s the tradition of choosing a focus word for a new year. Maybe even a new word for each month. Make of it what you will, how you will, the chosen word serves as a tool for reflection, a lens for living, a frame for your days.

At the outset of 2021, I wasn’t in the frame of mind to choose a defining word unless it was survival or endurance or possibly perseverance, none of which were inspiring or lyrical (shouldn’t your OLW strike deep chords in your spirit?). After 2020, I was tired. We were tired, all of us. It was a year that seemed liked ten. The world as we knew it changed overnight. Quarantine, separation, isolation, closed businesses, bare shelves at the stores, working from home, doing school online. Plans disrupted. Staggering losses of so many kinds. Grief. Rage. Despair. Navigating the unknown every single day. The COVID-troubled world kept turning but we almost didn’t recognize it or ourselves anymore…literally, behind the masks.

We hoped. We clung to our screens. We cherished every glimmer of light in the long, dark night of the soul. How long? we wondered. How long?

On the brink of 2021, as I wearily turned the page in my academic planner, I said something like this to myself: Forget the one little word thing. I don’t have the energy to think around it or write around it. What difference does it really make, anyway. After all, my word for 2020 was reclamation. I wrote in January, before the onslaught of COVID-19 in March, when everything shut down that Friday 13th for what we thought would be only two weeks: Moving forward becomes an act of will, a revised determination to do what you can, what’s most important, for that given day. Recovering ground, inch by precious inch.

Note to self: Be careful what you wish for…

But then, then, turning that page… I discovered this quote, in tiny font, sitting on January 1, 2021, in my planner: Experiencing awe (the feeling of being in the presence of something bigger than you) can improve your physical health and make you feel more altruistic. Intentionally create awe this month by spending time in nature, meditating, volunteering, etc.

I knew, then.

Whatever might come in 2021, I must look for awe. I must keep the door open for it. Anticipate it. Invite it.

There’s a psychology, a science, to awe. A savoring of life, an ineffable hope, a spark of joy, an inhaled breath of wonder at the wonders all around, a reverence. It can make you feel more altruistic…desiring to benefit others at your own expense…can the world not use more of this?

I sat in awe of this revelation…and that is the story of awe choosing itself as my word for this year, now in its final days.

It’s everywhere, awe.

In fragile periwinkle flowers poking through the January snow, in the piercing cry of a red-tailed hawk, in the flight of an eagle near enough for me to see its white head. In the resilience of children learning from home and in their happy dogs who attended class with them. In my own dog, who slept in my lap during those long hours online. In colleagues who stopped resisting new learning in the hardest of times and began embracing it…and each other. In children learning to read despite all, in one student pointing to a new word, “trombone” (without a picture), and telling me I don’t know how to say it, but it’s a musical instrument. In resuming church services and eventually singing hymns again. In the return of the little finches which have built a nest on my front door wreath every year except for 2020. In the gift of new life…in the announcement that my son and his wife were expecting a baby in the fall. In the long summer of anticipating, in finally making it to the ocean again, in seeing how seabirds stood on the shore, protecting one of their own that was missing a foot. In passing three white horses in a grassy meadow on morning drives to school, reminding me of a game my father taught me to play on long journeys when I was a child (I have a lot of thirty-point days now, Daddy). In teaching poetry again, in seeing the kids’ faces light up with their own writing discoveries. I wrote a lot of poetry in 2021; much of it centered on awe.

I have so much more to write. I am awed by what my sons have accomplished this year, one as a minister, the other as a funeral assistant and musician. I am awed by other people who say your boys have blessed me.

Baby girl Micah arrived at the end of October. Her big sister’s wish, come true.

Christmas Eve at my house, 2021

Awe abounds. It waits to be found. Just like the little present placed in my stack on Christmas Eve during our family gathering.

That’s especially for you, Franna, said my daughter-in-law.

I opened it.

Micah’s tiny handprint, in white plaster.

Awe.

And tears. Too overcome for words.

My daughter-in-law didn’t know the story. One day I will tell Micah about the handprint I made for my grandmother so long ago, how it hung on her bedroom wall for over thirty years…

Awe. Awe. Awe. Life in its abundance, making full circles. Light to be found, even in the darkest season. The treasure of having each other. Love, blessing, wonder, the gift of life itself, all from the hand of Almighty God.

I see no reason whatsoever for changing to a new word in 2022.

Wishing awe to you all – each new day with its waiting treasures

*******

with much love and gratitude to the Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge. There is sustaining power in writing. There is more in a writing community.

On fire and prayer

On the last Monday of October I drive to work in pre-dawn darkness as deep as midnight. Rounding bends on deserted backroads past unlit houses, gaping stubbled fields, hulking shapes of farm equipment, shadowed barns, patches of woods, when off in the distance, through silhouetted tree trunks—fire.

A bonfire. Tall flames, bright orange against the blackness, undulating skyward. Startling. So Halloween-esque. Hauntingly beautiful in its way except….I can’t tell what’s burning. Probably trash. The fire seems large for that, and before sunrise? I am too far away to see anything but the fire itself. I cannot see smoke or smell it. No screaming sirens. No alarms. Only silence, stillness…should I investigate to be sure? The road twists and turns, demanding my attention, and as I reach a tricky intersection where a few sets of headlights from opposite directions approach and pass, I realize: I’ve lost sight of the fire now. I am not sure of its location. Somewhere close by it’s burning, consuming, destroying, I hope nothing precious, nothing of value… and so I cross the intersection, praying it is controlled until extinguished.

On I drive in the darkness, shivering.

I think of anger.

*******

Fire, anger. The contrast of being controlled, purifying, and righteous, or uncontrolled to the point of destroying, intentionally or not, what is precious, valued, and loved. Thinking of that fire throughout the day yesterdaythere were no reports of damagereminded me of a poem I wrote last week:

Why I Pray

In the absence of peace,
I pray.

When my mind cannot fathom
or even form questions,
I pray.

When I am weary
of injustice, of sifting truth and lies,
when my inner well has run dry,
I pray.

I pray for power beyond my own.

To overcome the red-hot dagger of fury,
that I should not wield it,
thereby scarring others
and myself.
To knit words of healing instead,
one by one, 
like snowflakes falling
to form a blanket of blessing,
a holy hush.

Freeing myself by forgiving
myself
as well as others,
feeling the weight drop away.

That quickening sense of awe,
for even if I cannot call
fire from Heaven (thankfully),
I can move mountains of ice
in my own heart.

Because, as long as I live,
I will battle need, loss, and fear, 
trusting that love conquers all
—its beating wings in my heart,
forever my reason 
to pray
again.

*******

with thanks to Andy Schoenborn for the “Embrace your why” prompt and the mentor poem written by a student, shared on Ethical ELA’s Open Write last week.

and to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Writing Challenge, always encouraging “a world of reflective writers”—so needed.

Photo: Burning fire at nightwuestenigel. CC BY 2.0

Take and taken poem

with thanks to Andy Schoenborn for the invitation to write on “what we have taken and what has been taken from us” in today’s #VerseLove on Ethical ELA – a reflective poem using the words take and taken.

A double etheree, on Day Thirteen of National Poetry Month

New
morning
brimming with
yet unwritten
possibility
asking nothing of me
only offering itself
for the things I shall make of it
once the ribbon of light releases
this present day; what shall I take of it?

This present day, what I shall take of it?
Maybe just isolated fragments
to hold in pockets of silence
little treasures worth saving
moments of loving like
the ones yesterday
has not taken
away from
you and
me.

Zone

This quote was in my planner for the month of March.

Since it is the month of the Slice of Life Writing Challenge, I thought of it in terms of writing, and of the mind—where writing lives.

I picture “comfort zone” as a little garden surrounded by a stone wall; there is no gate. There, in the coolness of the day, the grass remains lush and green; dew glints like diamonds in a sun that never rises nor sets. There is no twilight in this zone, nor any dawn. Time is irrelevant. The season is constant; perpetual spring. Flowers remain in bloom, lavender, pink, lacy white like a wedding gown, but they give off no spirit-stirring fragrance, and they never die. They just are. A little fountain bubbles quietly in the midst. In the distance, birdsong. The birds don’t come to visit this garden, though, beckoning as it is. They are living things which need living things. Nothing grows in the garden. It is not stagnant, only static.

This garden is a place where nothing ever happens; to attempt feeling, to imagine, to have any hope of creating, one must risk climbing the wall.

There is no guarantee of what lies on the other side…except that the ground is there to land on, and that the stars are overhead for guidance, and that the wind will not be controlled, it will blow where it will, and somewhere in it you learn what holds and what does not, like the stone walls, mossy, cool to the touch, henges of the human mind. That is the strangest zone of all. It has nothing to do with time, but with that small green thing that desires to grow, seeking cracks for tender tendrils to poke through…whether in or out. The little living thing simply reaches for the light.

And so we write. We scale the wall of the comfort zone where nothing beautiful grows… and discover unexpected light. Perhaps in the wonder of words, in the glory of ideas, in the power of story… and then we realize: Different gardens, different flowers, different wellsprings, perhaps…but underneath, the living root that connects us all, one to the other. It is deep. It is ancient.

Going more than a bit out of my comfort zone here: sharing Golden Shovel poems built from the planner quote. They still need a good bit of work. As we sometimes do. They are imperfect, unpolished. As we are. You can see the poems are mirror images of each other. For so are we, in the end…

The writerly zone, after all, cannot be the comfort zone.

It is a scaling of the wall. Of the mind, and also of the heart… for that is called trust.

Note that one definition of “mind” is the element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought.

Sounds like a writer to me.

Before the Writing

A keen awareness of World
comfort beckoning
zone of reckoning
is this defining one’s mind?
A vast, inner expanse encompassing the
beautiful, a safe
place of keeping
but does that matter if
nothing leaps from yours to mine, or
ever climbs over the stone walls where
grows our vine of stories, inextricably
there intertwined, and infinitely rooted.

After the Writing

World of awareness, keen, a
beckoning comfort
reckoning of zone,
mind, one’s defining, this is
the encompassing expanse, inner, vast, a
safe, a beautiful
keeping of place
-if matter that does, but
-or mine to yours, from leaps nothing
where walls stone the over climbs, ever
inextricably, stories of vine, our grows
rooted, infinitely, and intertwined, there.

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 26, I am writing around a word beginning with letter z.

Now that I’m over THIS wall…in which direction shall I go for the remaining five days?

Capitol recollections

Morning breaks over the Capitol. March 2018.

I was eleven the first time I saw it with my own eyes. 6th grade field trip. In those days, parents could ride on the bus with the children; they didn’t have to follow behind in a car. That is how my mother got to go. She volunteered to chaperone. She didn’t have a driver’s license. I think it was the first time she’d ever been to D.C.

All along the mall, teachers strategically organized students for photos with the best view of the Capitol behind them. Everywhere you looked were rows and rows of children, many carrying small flags. Not all were American, but all seemed excited. I walked, listening to the musicality of many languages I couldn’t understand.

I cannot remember if it rained, or what we ate, but I recall the beauty of my country’s capital enchanting me. In some gift shop I bought a crinkly parchment reproduction of the Declaration of Independence. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…I was happy that day. The Declaration came with a feather pen, to my delight. Then I spied a horse ornament on a glass shelf behind the register. Dark, stormy gray mingled with cream, frozen in the act of rearing up, forelegs arcing in the air, powerful muscles so realistically rendered, mane flowing in an imaginary breeze.

I did not know, at age eleven, that a horse symbolizes courage. That it can also represent overcoming adversity and caring for one’s emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being.

I only knew this twelve-inch plastic horse was beautiful and mighty. Captivated, I handed my last dollars to the clerk who wrapped my horse in layers of paper. I cradled it close all the long bus ride home.

It remained on the shelf in my bedroom until I married and moved out.

I’d return to D.C. again via Amtrak at nineteen, to meet my cousin who lived there. He would accompany me to an audition for acting school in New York City (that is another story). It was winter, icy-cold. Bundled and laughing, we roamed the windswept streets, past the lofty steps of the Capitol, talking of life, of the future, of being mavericks of the family.

Life takes many an unforeseen turn. He died young. I never went to acting school.

I had a family of my own instead.

Over the course of years, my husband and I made several visits to D.C. He’s a history-lover, an original poli sci major turned pastor. We took our children when they were small. Our last visit was early spring, 2018, with friends. What I noticed most on approaching the Capitol in early morning: the deep silence. Few people were out. The brooding sky made a compelling backdrop for the ornate dome, topped by Freedom. I took a picture. I tried to remember my first visit as a child, how enchanted I felt…long before I understood that relationships can disintegrate in unimaginable ways. In families, communities, countries.

The day after the attack last week, as I turned on my computer screen to meet with young elementary students, I felt numb, unfocused, ill-prepared. One by one at the appointed times, the children popped in, their faces aglow because…it might snow! A pandemic, ten months of reinvented school and life, volumes of ongoing, unfolding horrors in the news…yet they greet me with when is the snow is supposed to start?

It set a little part of my hippocampus jingling. Snow, as a literary symbol, means innocence, purity, tranquility. Even blessing.

Suddenly that old storm-gray horse souvenir resurfaced, vivid, nearly tangible, in my memory.

Strange.

I can’t say it’s symbolic of the American spirit. What does it mean to be American?

Maybe it’s symbolic of a child’s spirit. What makes it so mighty?

All I am sure of is this: a longing for overcoming and well-being.

For all.

*******

My previous post is a poem on the power of words to wound and heal: When.

Here are words inscribed in the U.S. Capitol:

On the Rostrum of the House Chamber – “Union, Justice, Tolerance, Liberty, Peace”

Behind the vice president’s chair in the Senate Chamber – “E pluribus unum” (“Out of many, one”)

On the stained glass window of the Congressional prayer room – “Preserve me, O God: for in thee do I put my trust.” Psalm 16:1

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Challenge, in itself a testimony to the power of stories and community.

Dancing ghosts

A poem inspired by a neighbor’s decorations

I happened to glimpse them, in a ring
Holding hands, a curious thing
In the darkness, dancing there
Diaphanous beings, light as air
Small faces in gossamer veiling
Wispy arms fluttering, flailing
Maybe in mischief, maybe in glee
Luminous little spirits set free
…hallowed revenants of you and me,
The children that we used to be.

*******

Just a little offering (shades of October? A bit of Octo-plasm?) for Poetry Friday.
Special thanks to Janice Scully at Salt City Verse for hosting the Roundup.

Failure to thrive

I think about these words often, failure to thrive.

They’re an official cause of death. As on my mother-in-law’s certificate.

But I wonder: How can living to ninety-one be considered ‘failure to thrive’?

A coal-miner’s daughter who survived the Great Depression, widowed twice with young children each time, who maintained a beautiful home and a bountiful table frequently laden and ready for the arrival of her family. A voracious reader with a passion and ear for music, a grandmother generous with her love, time, and grace, a woman of great faith in God … her decline was slow and in the last days, she called out to deceased siblings and sang the hymns of her childhood.

—It doesn’t seem like failure to thrive to me. If anybody ever thrived, she did.

Oh, I understand it’s medical terminology for geriatric deterioration, encompassing decreased appetite leading to poor nutrition, muscle weakness, dementia; the human body can only take us so far.

But failure to thrive doesn’t happen only to the elderly. Most often it’s applied to babies who don’t gain weight, who don’t grow as they should, due to a host of contributing factors.

Both ends of the spectrum, then, isn’t it, failure to thrive. Its potential can frame the beginning of one’s life, and, even if that life should be long, the end.

Which for me begs the question of all that’s in between.

In how many ways do we fail to thrive? In the course of being alive, what are the “nutrients” each individual needs to live well? Thriving in this sense goes beyond the physical to the psychological, mental, emotional, spiritual… can there be holistic balance if one part is suffering, starving? Because I’m an educator, this line of thinking brings me to “the whole child”: What is impeding growth? What “learning diet” does this individual child need? In the academic realm, nourishment for flourishment can vary widely… but at the core of being human, one non-negotiable need is each other.

Relationships fail to thrive, do they not. Suffering ensues. A point of pain ripples outward, troubling the waters, sometimes over a great expanse… being alive, successfully, involves an array of coping mechanisms, the ability to adapt. The Venus flytrap comes to mind. Stuck in nutrient-poor soil, it compensates by eating meat, the unwary flies which land in its toothy leaf-blades. The businesslike science of staying alive. Gulp.

In terms of the human, the matter of thriving—growing, growing up, growing old—involves willing interdependence. Based on… love? Conscience? Overcoming fear? When my oldest son was in his early teens, he sighed: “I do not want to grow up.” (Of course he did; he’s now a husband, a father, and his daughter is the joy of his days).

But I understood his words and shivered.

Point being that of the baby, the child, the adult, the aged and infirm, which stands most able to impact the thriving of the human ecosystem… for better, for worse… with the power to discern, decide, desire, and do for one and all?

Yeah.

That’s us.

I think about these words often, failure to thrive.

They’re an official cause of death…

Photo: Wilted. Fotologic. CC BY

******

With thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life invitation to write and to this writing community for unfailing encouragement.

Not another hand turkey

Last week ended with a professional development session. One of those “compliance” types for which it’s hard to muster enthusiasm. I’ve led professional development under some tough circumstances—like, for an entire staff on the last day before winter break, when snowflakes began billowing on the other side of the window—so I know how hard it can be. I attempt to make whatever PD I do as inspirational and practical as I can for teachers (in the case of the snowfall, it was “Bye! Vacation starts now!”).

But this time, I was an attendee. The whole week had been out of whack between the holiday on Monday and my battling a minor illness. I was happy to see the end arrive despite some trepidation about this PD session.

Especially when we participants were asked to draw hand turkeys.

For real? I sighed. Is this in any way productive? 

I couldn’t recall the last time I did this. In my early elementary years, surely.  I tried to remember helping my own children trace their little hands in autumns past.

But I complied. I penciled the outline of my hand onto white paper.

We attendees were then told to write “something we’re proud of” on each of the four so-called tail feathers. These things could be personal, professional, or both.

Well, this was kinda different. The four things came to me pretty quickly:

My blog. It was born as a way of making myself write regularly, evidence of “walking the walk” as a teacher-writer. I can’t stand before colleagues and profess my love of writing or testify to its impact if I’m not doing it on a regular basis. That’s how the blog started; it soon became a keeping-place of memories and reflections, a patchwork quilt of my life now and long ago. Not to mention that it threw the doors wide open for meeting other teacher-writer and reader friends who’ve enriched my days immeasurably. That I’ve sustained it for nearly three years feels like a true achievement.

Coaching. My daily work. I collaborate with K-5 teachers on English Language Arts instruction.There’s a different ebb and flow to it each year.  The work can be like riding a train and watching the landscape zip by at an alarming rate. It’s sometimes like trying to irrigate monotonous, barren deserts. There’s a lot of new expectations of my teaching colleagues this year, new curriculum, newly-tweaked standards (again). With new and greater demands on top of all the old ones, it’s easy for a teacher to feel constrained, paralyzed. Every time I can help simplify, problem-solve, or streamline the work of classroom teachers, I feel like the “flow” gets better for them and for their students. We ALL grow.

My sons. I am so proud of who they are and where they are in life. Both of them are working on seminary degrees, one in music, the other in graduate divinity studies. One knew his path from early childhood, the other took the long way round, but both have chosen paths of service. On this note, my heart becomes too full for words. . . .

The Facebook devotional.  I don’t have a Facebook account (preferring Twitter) but my husband does. He’s had it for years and has never written a post. Last week, out of the blue, he said: “I need your help.” He’s a pastor. For three decades now he’s tirelessly served churches and communities. He’s married people, buried them, held their hands during their darkest times, laughed and rejoiced with them in the better ones. And ministry is changing; social media is a way to reach out . . . so, enter me.  Would I help him craft a short devotional post each day? It’s a small thing, really, but if the words help someone, or give them hope . . . then to me it’s a way of giving back. See, November marks three years since my husband was diagnosed with ocular melanoma. He lost his eye, but he’s alive. He’s here. Cancer-free. Every day is a celebration. There’s always, always, always something to be thankful for . . . yes, I’ll help him share it each day.

I suppose the professional development presenters may have wondered why I kept working on my hand turkey throughout the entire session. They may have thought I’d tuned them out. I hadn’t. I was listening. What they had to say was actually quite helpful. I processed it all as I added more and more detail to my turkey—let’s hope the facilitators thought I was sketchnoting. One thing just kept leading to another until I realized that the words on the tail feathers represented more than things I was simply proud of. This is the work of my hands, I mused, as I wrote and drew with one hand inside the outline of the other. Each thing I’ve listed is an opportunity, a piece of life’s work given to me.

—Gifts. 

Pride wasn’t the appropriate sentiment. Not even close.

I draped my turkey in a banner bearing the word “Gratitude.”

Isn’t that where the personal and professional roads should converge, anyway? Or the point of origin from which they radiate?

It is for me.

It is from this crossroads of gratitude that I wish you professional and personal joy, in all the work of your hands.

Happy Thanksgiving.