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.

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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.”

Spiritual Journey Thursday: On golf and good-bye

An elegy.

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.

-Ecclesiastes 9:11

He was born nearly seventy years ago.

With cerebral palsy.

He would never be able to go up a flight of stairs, for both halves of his body wouldn’t work together.

He would partake of the Lord’s Supper at church with a special goblet reserved for him; the tiny communion cups required too much finesse.

His ever-present smile, however, set his entire face alight with a magnificent inner glow that never dimmed, his piercing blue eyes as bright as the unclouded summer sky.

Perhaps it began with his father, who chose to believe.

Who loved the game of golf and decided his son would, too.

And so he taught his boy.

As if there were no handicap.

Always make a total effort, even when the odds are against you.

-Arnold Palmer

It’s a game of precision, skill, and amazing grace.

The boy loved it.

He excelled at it.

He entered tournaments, won trophies.

A whole case full of them.

I have to believe in myself. I know what I can do, what I can achieve.

-Sergio Garcia

He liked people even though many could not understand his labored speech and, in their discomfiture, avoided him.

He could drive a car and on occasion came to visit the parsonage where my husband and I lived, when our children were small.

I learned he had a mischievous sense of humor, that his brain was, in fact, brilliant.

I wonder how many people understood this.

When I told him that I had to complete a required PE credit on my path to becoming a teacher, and that the only thing currently available was golf, and that I was already in danger of failing it due to my abysmal performance, he coached me.

Brought me pages of yellow legal paper covered with handwritten notes far clearer, finer, and consistent than my own, organized under this heading: The Fundamentals of Golf. Another heading: Form. Accompanied by his sketches of how to stand, how to hold the club, body position, dotted lines for movement…

I contemplated these golden pages with absolute awe.

He brought me newspaper clippings and magazine articles on women golfers. Hoping, perhaps, I’d love the sport. His sport. That I’d maybe rise, somehow, to the glimmering, glorious heights of it…

I never did. Never learned to love golf, not even a little.

The university instructor declared, in utter exasperation, that I looked like I was chopping wood.

But I got an A in the course.

Thanks to my coach.

Golf is the closest game to the game we call life. You get bad breaks from good shots; you get good breaks from bad shots—but you have to play it where it lies.

-Bobby Jones

He taught me much.

He wanted to be married, to have a family.

It didn’t happen.

“People don’t understand God,” he told me during one of his last parsonage visits. “But I understand God.”

I looked at his face, bright and earnest as ever, uncharacteristically serious, eyes fierce, blazing.

And I believed him.

As you walk down the fairway of life, you must smell the roses, for you only get to play one round.

-Ben Hogan

He lived with his mother, who cared for him until her illness and death, after which he went to an assisted living facility.

Parents gone, driving gone, golf gone. Seasons come and gone with slow decline, languish, only memories left of moments in the sun, walking the fairway, making your best shot.

With the arrival of COVID-19, even visitors were gone.

And now so is he.

He could be considered a victim. Of the cerebral palsy that marked an existence of suffering from birth to his death by a pathogen that, in electron-microscope images, looks like a golf ball with extruding dimples.

Some might say his life wasn’t fair… what if his father thought this?

I say he was a conqueror.

More than a conqueror, never separated from the love of God.

He understood.

Only a few will be allowed at the memorial today.

Just know that I remember, old Friend. Farewell. You were, you remain, always, a gift from our Father.

Photo: Chris Urbanowicz. CC BY

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Special thanks to Carol Varsalona for hosting Spiritual Journey Thursday today at Beyond Literacy Link.

Still waters

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 …”

Abject terror.

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 …”

Whoosh.

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

anchor them

to the earth

far below.

And so we float

suspended

separate

waiting

enduring

this strange baptism

yet anchored

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.

Photo: Water lilies on a pond at Powhatan State Park. Virginia State Parks. CC BY

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Thank you, Donna for hosting April’s Spiritual Journey Thursday.

Equinox

Today’s post serves a dual purpose: My daily Slice of Life Story Challenge and Spiritual Journey Thursday, organized by my friend Margaret Simon on the first Thursday of the month. Thank you, Margaret, for the invitation to host.

I chose to write around the theme of “balance.”

Not necessarily what you may think…

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It’s almost here.

Spring. The equinox.

A balance of light and dark in the world, or “equal night.”

My thinking radiates in a number of metaphorical directions here but I’ll begin with the moment I was at school grappling with a new data reporting system that I have to teach to colleagues. I logged in and discovered this message: Alternate Data Entry for Dark Period.

Dark Period?

It has the sound of a span in history, like it belongs in the Holocene Epoch of the Quaternary Period, the current one in which we live, geologically speaking (“current” meaning over 11, 000 years old, for the record). As if it can be marked in time like the Ice Age or at least the Dark Ages.

Dark Period.

All it means, apparently, is the time when the data reporting system is shut down to be updated. It’s tech housecleaning. During the Dark Period, no additional data entry can occur, until everything is verified and balanced.

The words stuck with me, though.

Many would say we are living in a Dark Period now. It’s an era of strife, vitriol, backlash. An age of ever-increasing concerns over mental health. Over health in general—the coronavirus.

And at the heart of the darkness is fear.

A. Roger Ekirch writes in At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past: “Night was man’s first necessary evil, our oldest and most haunting terror. Amid the gathering darkness and cold, our prehistoric forebears must have felt profound fear … that one morning the sun might fail to return.” He goes on to say that many psychologists believe that our early ancestors feared not the dark itself but harm befalling them in the dark (for it was an unlit world at night) and over time night became synonymous with danger.

Fear leads to anger and anxiety. In the dark, things don’t look as they should; they’re distorted.

What’s the balance?

Now we’re back to the equinox, metaphorically.

Light. Day. The assurance that there’s still good working in the world, undoing harm. Think of the destruction of Australia and the human involvement in deliberately setting bushfires. Then think of soldiers in the Australian army, lined up in rows, cuddling and nursing koalas when off duty. Then apply it to people suffering around our globe …

We are our own greatest enemy and helpmeet. We all hang in the balance of these: despair and hope, destruction and edification, hurt and healing.

In The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, Patricia A. McKillip describes a monstrous creature like “a dark mist” who embodies “the fear men die of.” The novel is about learning how to live and love in a different world.

That would mean overcoming the dark, the fear.

Incidentally, in a strange balance, the current virus causing so much alarm shares its name with the crown of the sun.

And, speaking of the sun, here’s the secret of the equinox, why it’s not really equal: There’s actually more day than night.

More light. Literally.

And figuratively, it has nothing to do with moving around the sun and everything to do with moving the human heart.

Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. CC BY

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