Nurturing the summer soul: Spiritual journey

Peace

Last day at the beach
I wake far too early
but I make the coffee anyway
and take a cup to the top deck

I sit in the chair
facing east
drinking in
the deepness
of solitude
the blessedness
of silence

Earth stirs a little
and sighs
like a baby in its sleep

Just ahead, high over the sea
Venus glitters and winks

I am the bright and morning star
I know you are

My waiting soul
cannot think
of anything else it wants
or needs
as black silhouettes
of pelicans
fly soundlessly by
against the sky
pinkening with light

Sunrise
signifying the end
of night

My view this morning: Venus over the Atlantic just before sunrise

Pelicans, while not in this particular shot, are plentiful here. As the sky grew lighter they appeared in silhouette, gliding gracefully against it. The pelican is an ancient symbol for Christ, often depicted in Christian art.

Revelation 22, the last chapter of the Bible, references the River and Tree of Life, the healing of the nations, the end of night, and the return of Christ with the words “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last…I am the root and offspring of David, and the bright and morning star(13; 16).

The best I can do is to describe this morning scene. The sense of peace, so often fleeting or not to be found when Earth is wide awake and churning, was honestly too deep for words. I shall hold these moments in my mind for returning to when my soul needs more nurturing, long past summer.

—with thanks to Carol Varsalona for the theme and for hosting the Spiritual Journey writers on this first Thursday in August.

Solitary existence: the hummingbirds

Hummingbirds lead a solitary existence.

I saw one hummingbird out back last week, darting about the pines. It turned in my direction, tiny pale-bellied fairy-creature suspended in midair, as if to acknowledge my presence across the yard before zipping away. I wondered if it was making some kind of request. The next day I bought a feeder and hung it outside my kitchen window; within moments, a tiny female landed to sip my homemade nectar.

The next day another female arrived. I watched the two of them competing for turns at the feeder. All day they chase each other away, each still managing to land and feed for the few seconds it takes to sate a creature so tiny. One tentative male finally showed up today, his ruby throat resplendent in the sunlight. I haven’t managed to get a photo of him yet. I hope he’ll return, despite these territorial females.

There’s a lot I didn’t know about hummingbirds. They’re curious. They watch me through the window as I’m watching them. I read that they’re highly intelligent; they learn to recognize the person who feeds them and may even remind this person if their sugar water is running low. They are not social, not flock birds. When they migrate to Mexico in the fall, they go it alone. Why does this pull so terribly on my heartstrings? I cannot shake the image in my mind of this tiniest of birds flying so far by itself.

They do not think of themselves as fragile. They are not lonesome.

It’s what they do. They lead a solitary existence.

With that, the hummingbird memory stirs.

Summer, long ago. Riding in Grandma’s rocket-red Ford Galaxie 500 along the dusty dirt road to her sister’s house. The Galaxie doesn’t have power steering or air-conditioning so the windows are down and Grandma has a Kleenex stuffed into her cleavage to catch the trickling sweat. Fortunately Aunt Elizabeth only lives about a mile away, in a little bungalow house with square tapered columns, off to itself by cornfields and groves of hardwoods. There’s a path in the grass of her yard where her old maroon car (I think it was maroon, either a Ford or a Chevy, I can’t recall exactly) is parked by the weathered outbuilding. Grandma and I park behind it and walk in the shade of the trees to Aunt Elizabeth’s back porch.

Everything is old. The porch floorboards, the screen door that squawks on opening and closing, the tiny, cramped kitchen, the worn linoleum revealing a slightly swayed floor, the living room with braided rugs…it’s a dark house, faintly musty. The smell of Time hangs in the air, unmoved even by the square electric floor fan humming on high speed. Aunt Elizabeth is pleased to see me. She opens her arms to give me a hug and kiss. Her pale cheek, faintly mottled with reddish freckles, is cool. She’s two years older than my grandmother. She asks how my Daddy is, says she sure does miss him, oh, she used to enjoy having him over to eat…

Aunt Elizabeth doesn’t have children. Not any that lived. When I first asked about it, Grandma told me of her sister’s two premature, stillborn babies. Tiny things, said Grandma; she was there when it happened. She held them, grieved for them. Aunt Elizabeth was married to Granddaddy’s youngest brother, who died before I was born. He suffered from some kind of condition doctors could never figure out. Without any warning, he’d lose consciousness and collapse. It happened numerous times until the day he had a spell and couldn’t be revived.

So my great-aunt, in her sixties, lives here alone, way out in the country where, in the 1970s, people still don’t have telephones; they drive to each others’ houses to visit and catch up on news. It is good that a few of her eight siblings live close by, that grown nieces and nephews make a point to come by to see her when they can. Aunt Elizabeth gardens, cans her vegetables and preserves in glass jars for storing on her kitchen shelves, drives to town, tends to herself, is completely independent, yet it seems a solitary existence to me. As she chats with Grandma I wonder if she’s lonesome, if she still misses her husband, gone for so long, and if she’s sad about having no children or grandchildren of her own. She hands some bubblegum out to me and I know she got it because she knew I was coming.

When our visit is over, we all walk out on the porch — that’s what you do, in the country. You walk out and wave until your visitor drives out of sight. Unwritten etiquette. Everyone does it. Same for throwing your hand up to any other car you pass on the road.

But Grandma and I don’t leave yet, because of the hummingbirds.

They’re everywhere.

Aunt Elizabeth has strung up several red and yellow plastic feeders around her porch. At every one is a horde of the tiny birds, dipping in and out. The air vibrates from the rapid fanning of their wings; I feel the circulation, a coolness against the heavy summer humidity.

I am awed. I have never seen anything so magical before. I can’t even count how many hummingbirds.

The sisters, in their delight, laugh like young children.

—It comes back to me, watching the few contentious hummingbirds outside my window almost half a century later. I didn’t know how rare a thing it was, then, the communal gathering of hummingbirds. I remember my great-aunt, not with pity. I hear the musical sound of her laughter and the humming of all those tiny wings there on her porch….knowing that in the long enduring of life’s losses and trials come moments of pure enchantment and abundant richness.

I shall need more feeders.

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life story-writing invitation

Eternal summer: memoir poem

with thanks to Jennifer Guyor Jowett for the Open Write invitation on Ethical ELA today: “Share your summertimes with us, whether it’s within the memories of your childhood or the place you are in right now. Take us there. Include sensory details to evoke the spirit of your summer.”

I have written lot about my childhood summers. Today I try a bit of reframing and recapturing the magic…

*******

Eternal Summer Reigns

Daughter of Eve from the far land of Spare Oom where eternal summer reigns around the bright city of War Drobe, how would it be if you came and had tea with me?

—Mr. Tumnus to Lucy, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

I live it every day of my life, summer.

By some great magic I am still a child
returning to my grandparents’ house
so deep in the country some people say
it’s at the end of the Earth

for me, ever the beginning

a place of woods, holding their secrets close
a place of enchantment, outside of Time
a place of belonging, of sacrifice

where ghosts of the past live again
in Grandma’s stories

there’s her Papa, tending bees
never getting stung
her Mama, picking cotton
and dipping snuff

her brothers and sisters
(eight in all)
playing softball
or piling in the goat-cart
to be pulled by a white mule
named Jenny

there’s my grandfather and his brother
courting my grandmother and her sister
gathering at friends’ houses
singing and make taffy

my father, being born
in a tenant farmer’s house
—Cotton-Top, they call him,
for the color of his hair
when he is a toddler

babies born into the family
some stillborn
(Daddy’s voice…Would have been
so interesting to see
what my double first cousins
would have looked like
if they’d lived)

—I live them every day,
the stories.

I am the stories.

Every day I am a child
unpacking my suitcase
for the summer
welcoming the ghosts
walking the old dirt road
eventually covered with gravel
from phosphate mining rejects

bits of ancient history
crunch beneath my feet:
shark’s teeth, some tiny and sharp,
some as big as my small palm;
coral skeleton, white chunks
embossed with lacy flower designs;
whale eardrums, curiously curved fossils
—with these, whales heard
their own stories, too
now, they are 
part of mine

and above all, above all
from the surrounding woods, bending near
keeping their secrets close
the crescendo and decrescendo
of cicadas

the true song of summer
and the sun
and living
and dying

and returning.

By some great magic I am still a child
still listening, still living summer every day
and forever
in that sound.

My grandmother in the summer of 1959, years before my birth. This is the setting of my idyllic childhood summers to come, beginning a decade and a half later. I would stay for a couple of weeks each year and never wanted to leave. Grandma fostered my love of reading, writing, and story. She drove me to the tiny county library at the beginning of my summer visits and helped me haul out the armloads of books I selected. She saved magazines, Mini Pages, and National Enquirers all year long for me.

We walked the old cemetery in the clearing diagonally across from where she sits in this photo and the graveyard of the church around the bend, where her parents are buried. As we read the stones, the blazing sun casting our shadows across them, Grandma told me the stories.

The fossils in the gravel of the poem were real. I found handfuls of them in the road here when I was a child.

Cicadas are an ancient symbol of immortality and resurrection. I write of them often because of their connection to this place. Their loud, rattling chorus was ever-present in the background of my childhood summers; the sound remains one of the most comforting on Earth to me. It’s a call of the sun, love, belonging, and home. There’s a myth about the goddess of the dawn, Aurora, asking Jupiter to grant immortality to her lover, which he did, only the goddess forgot to ask Jupiter to also grant her man eternal youth. Her beloved continued aging until Aurora finally turned him into a cicada. If you look closely at depictions of Aurora, you will see the cicada. Why tell this story here? This morning, before the dawn, before the cicadas woke to sing, I saw Jupiter shining high beside the moon. Then I sat down to write to this prompt of summer celebration, reliving halcyon childhood moments with my grandparents at their home, a place where my generational roots run deep in the earth, where my father grew up…an old, far place in the east, named Aurora.

For me, ever the beginning. Eternal summer reigns.

*******

thanks also to Two Writing Teachers for providing a place to share our stories – for we ARE our stories

Toadally true story

While working outside around the house, I paid no attention to the little brown rock in the driveway.

Until it hopped.

On closer inspection: Not a rock. A tiny, rust-colored toad, pretending to be a rock.

Reminded me, for just a fraction, of story characters who magically transform themselves into creatures or objects to avoid detection from enemies…

I leaned in while trying to maintain a respectful, non-threatening distance.

“You’re doing a magnificent job of it,” I told the toad.

Of what? its tiny taciturn face seemed to ask.

“Of pretending to be a rock,” I said.

It sighed (I think).

What gave me away?

“Well, rocks don’t hop.”

Its expression: pure disdain.

“Toads don’t talk, either,” it said, as it turned and hopped away across the hot pavement.

Okay…so this story may not be toadally true…

The toad. Less than one inch long. Stone-faced, isn’t it. Can’t decide if I’d call it Rusty or Rocky. Or perhaps just Fowler, as it appears to be a Fowler’s toad, with poisonous warts…fun fact: apparently ALL toads are poisonous. Not highly toxic to humans through touch, only if ingested (gulp). Think of those I caught as a child and brought home in my metal Peanuts lunchbox amongst the crusts of my PB&J (toadally true. Honest). Would make for fun fiction writing with students when they study animal defense mechanisms: The Revenge of the Toads…

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge
and, of course, to the toad

There comes a time…

when the baby finches
on my front door wreath
have flown
and I no longer hear
the cheerful cheeping
and chattering

that particular
morningsong
is gone

although an entire
avian choir
assembles in the trees
before dawn
each day
singing the darkness
away

there comes a time
when I know
the twice-used nest
is too destroyed
and the old wreath
with faded magnolias
is battered
past all hope

there comes a time
when I must take it down
from my seasonal
bird sanctuary
to ceremonially
throw it away
as I did today

thinking about
all the life
that came into being
on this circle
of grapevine
hanging from
a single nail

but I do not grieve

I imagine
dozens of finches
alive in the trees
surrounding

I imagine
they’re a big part
of the dawn choristers
sounding

and I know,
I know
a pair of them
will return
when I put up
a new wreath
next spring

there comes a time
when I finally
clean the porch
where I can sit again
and bask
in my tiny part
of sustaining
fragile feathery life
in this world

and celebrate
being able
to open
my front door
once more

After several springs, the magnolia wreath is no more
but I have a fresh clean door
and this wreath celebrating summer

Eight months

Numbering the days
God recreated my world
with your arriving

My beloved Micah

One day I will tell you many stories, such as how you don’t like to take naps during the day and how I can manage to rock you to sleep. I like to think of it as Franna-magic. I will tell you that at eight months you suffer separation anxiety when you come to my house and your parents are out of your sight. I will tell you how you cry about that and how I take you outside and then you stop crying because it’s June, everything is so green, and the birds are always singing; you grow still, listening to their lively songs. Best of all, you heard your first cicada in my arms, one loner rattling high in the pines; you lifted your tear-streaked baby face to the sky in wonder. One day I will tell you that when I was a little girl staying with my grandparents in the summertime, the constant rising and falling of hundreds of cicada-rattles became my favorite sound. For me it is an Earth-song of belonging, comfort, hope, resurrection. It sings in my veins. In that sound, my grandmother is near. Perhaps you will love it too, my precious Micah. Maybe it will be one of many bonds we share in all the days and seasons and years to come, a tympani accompaniment to our generations, going on…just know that today and every day, your presence in this world is my new and hallowed heartsong.

XOXOXO forever & ever – Franna

Patch of earth

Sunny afternoon
visiting my son

my granddaughter
walks me out
to a patch
of dusty gray soil
shadowed by
the old live oak
not far from
the swingset

here, she says,
is where
we saw the turtle
laying eggs
then she
went away
into the woods

that is the way
of turtles, I say
she will not
come back

my granddaughter nods
and I recall
that her first word
was turtle

my son has placed
fluorescent stake flags
around this patch
of incubating earth

for the benefit
of his expectant
child

Not sure how many eggs are hidden here in this patch of earth so near my granddaughter’s playground.

Empty box turtle shell discovered by my son’s basement. The turtle died some time ago. Not the mother, but apparently she was also an eastern box turtle. Under good conditions, the eastern box turtle can live over a hundred years. It’s a symbol for patience and is also the state reptile of North Carolina.

Out of the shadows

Late June afternoon on the porch. A long-settling stillness, the day’s brilliance deepening to amber, shadows slanting across lawns and pavement, a cool pre-dusk breeze riffling trees and wind chimes, carrying the sound of a child calling in the distance. It’s not a child; it’s a little goat from a neighbor’s pen, hidden in a patch of woods. Bleating for its supper, I suspect. Startlingly humanlike voice. A neither-here-nor-there sound, disembodied, suspended in the air like time itself, clinging to these green and gold moments, unwilling to let go…

“Mom, let’s go for a walk,” says my youngest son (aka Cadillac Man).

I grab my shoes.

Walking beside me along our neighborhood street, my boy speaks, as he always does, of music. Songs he is learning, one he wants me to practice with him (it has to be simple for me. He can sing any part he likes in any key he likes; he can play anything he wants on the piano or guitar). I say I’ll try. He speaks of his new job at the funeral home; we reflect on the recent death of a beloved friend who’s the same age I am. Fresh-grated sadness, still surreal.

As we talk I note that no neighbors are out and about this afternoon. We seem quite alone. At one house, pool towels draped over the front railing billow in the breeze. American flags on front porch flagpoles ripple and flap with crisp smacks. A couple of cicadas rattle from high in the trees that frame backyards. Our long shadows stretch out on the pavement before us, where flecks of quartz wink; when my boy and I turn at the road’s end, the shadows disappear.

We pass a row of cypresses where there’s sudden movement in the grass. A black shape materializes, runs after us, crosses right in front of us…

Good thing we aren’t superstitious.

A young black cat, meowing.

“Awww,” says Cadillac Man, as it rubs against his legs. “What a sweet little cat.”

It comes over to me, rubs against my legs, purring madly.

We are devout dog-people. I can’t have a cat. I’m allergic. I learned this at age five or six when my family took in a stray Siamese (Mr. Cat, we called him) that took refuge on the stoop of my childhood home during a storm. Swollen eyes and asthma didn’t stop me, however, from bringing home a black kitten nobody else wanted when I was in college…

“It looks so much like my cat Moriah,” I tell my son. The name came from a magical cat in The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, a book I read when I was about twelve.

Cadillac Man bends down, picks up the creature. “I would keep it if you could breathe.” The little cat nestles against him. Animals love my boy. They seem to sense his gentle spirit.

After a moment, the cat twists to get down. Cadillac Man releases it.

“It looks kind of thin. I wonder if it’s hungry…” Do moms always think about this first? Is this our deepest default, this hard-wired compulsion to feed all little living things, to keep them living?

The cat sits looking up at us with big, unblinking, green-yellow eyes. Meow.

And it trots right beside us, like a good dog would, back to our driveway where I feed it some of Dennis the dachshund’s steak-flavored food in an old dish.

“I hope it stays,” says Cadillac Man. “It can be an outside cat.”

I examine the cat as it eats. “It has all its claws.”

“We should name it,” says Cadillac Man.

“Look how rusty its fur is in the sunlight,” I observe. “Black cats aren’t exactly black. It’s a genetic mutation of the tabby pattern. See the faint rings in its tail, there at the tip? So much like Moriah, only she was smaller and didn’t have a tail…” another mutation. She was the last kitten left in the Free Kittens box on campus the day I found her and took her home. Shelters say black cats are the hardest to find homes for; no idea on stats of cats with stumps for tails…

“We aren’t naming it Moriah, Mom.”

“Of course not. She was one of a kind and besides, this one’s a boy.”

Cadillac Man is silent for a moment. The cat has nearly finished his steak dinner. “Well, you know it has to be a musician’s name…”

This is what he does. Since childhood he’s named pet fish after bass singers; his dachshund, after drummer Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys.

I can see what’s coming: “Brian, I suppose?”

Cadillac Man smiles. “Not quite. I christen this cat Douglas.

Brian Wilson’s middle name. I was close.

After licking the bowl clean, Douglas follows us up the sidewalk, cutting in front of Cadillac Man to roll over just like Dennis the dachshund does for a belly rub.

“Awww,” says my boy, rubbing the proffered belly. “Listen—he’s purring like a truck!”

Indeed he is.

It’s getting late. We need to go in to wash up and have our own supper, so we stroke Douglas one last time. I make sure to wash my hands well, with extra soap.

We peek out of the windows from time to time. Douglas is lying on the porch, and then he’s gone.

But not really.

He’s curled up under the rocking chair, sound asleep.

When he wakes, I take one of Dennis’ soft blankets out and put it in his chosen sleeping spot. Douglas sits on it at once.

“There,” I tell him. “Now you know that if you need a safe, comfortable place to sleep, you have one. If you’re hungry, I’ll feed you whenever you come around. I’ll leave water out for you. It’s summer, see…”

Douglas purrs as if he understands…and maybe he does, for the next morning he comes to polish off a whole bowl full of food, and he’s waiting in the driveway to greet us on Wednesday night when we return from prayer meeting.

And then he vanishes.

A day passes, and another, and another. No Douglas.

It storms. Thunder, lightning. Rain gushing from the gutters.

I hope he’s all right, wherever he is. If he belongs to someone, I hope he’s back home and happy. We ought to have named him Macavity, the Mystery Cat.

I shake out his blanket, fold it, replace it. I toss yesterday’s water from his new dish and refill it with fresh.

I think of Mr. Cat. Of Moriah. So long ago.

I wonder if it’s absurd to keep leaving fresh water out for a cat that may never return.

But I do it anyway, because I told Douglas I would.

I also told Cadillac Man we could have named him Question Quigley (from Harry Potter) for that tail

The best shot I could get of his face; Douglas kept trying to rub against me while I attempted to take his picture

Asking for a belly rub

For comparison: my cat Moriah, almost forty years ago, with my childhood dog, Bagel

—OH, and P.S. Guess who came for dinner last night?

Memories, like little shadows, return, too.

*******

And so it is that black cats are my favorite, despite their long-maligned history (another reason I feel concerned for Douglas). I wrote another take on them if you’re so inclined: 13 Ways of Looking at a Black Cat Crossing Your Path in the Time of COVID-19 While Driving to School to Teach Online Near Halloween of Election Year 2020.

with special thanks to the Slice of Life community at Two Writing Teachers.
We are our stories.

Escape

On the first day of summer the young lovebirds venture a rare morning stroll, having flown the coop for a bit of adventure in a lush green paradise all their own, the cocky young fellow squiring his best girl away from the prying eyes of her sisters, sunlight gleaming on his proud coppery coiffure, a pulse-quickening sight, iconic, idyllic, how could she refuse, indeed she cannot, as she bows her little red maiden’s coif, demurely casting her eyes downward, considering the grass beneath her feet, on the constant lookout for insects crawling by while preening her pristine white finery, mostly out of nervousness, mind, as she’s not accustomed to such freedoms, all this overwhelming dewiness, this newness, this green green greenness—ah, they suddenly realize I am watching, so they pretend they are supposed to be here, but of course I know better; I strain for snatches of their deliberately muffled discourse as they turn to walk in the opposite direction, like this is a perfectly ordinary occurrence versus an illicit escape…ba-gock, ba-gock, ba-goooock…we may not speak the same language, my free-ranging friends, but I shall leave your to your day in the sun, yes, here’s to this longest day of the year and savoring every bright moment, I cannot blame you at all for stealing away, with a little piece of my own heart…

My neighbor’s runaway rooster and hen, enjoying their summer morning stroll in the grass across the street from my driveway. My five-year-old granddaughter onomatopoetically refers to chickens as “the ba-gocks.” We seldom see them; their coop is tucked in a patch of woods. But we hear them “ba-gocking” throughout the day, and Rooster (we really should give him a name) never tires of crowing. He sometimes gets in a crowing match with my granddaughter, who “ur-ur-ur-ur-UUURRRRs” back at him. I hear him even now, as I write.