A bit of light

Today on Ethical ELA I encountered a poetic form new to me: the lantern. My understanding is that it is a five-line Japanese shape poem beginning with a one-syllable noun followed by successive lines of nouns containing two, three, and four syllables, ending with another one-syllable noun, all connected to and building on the first word.

I was immediately captivated and had to give it a try.

It is challenging.

In my mind the lantern image morphed into a lamppost, a symbol with much personal meaning. Like the indelible image in Narnia, a lamppost marks the way home for me: one stood in front of the house where I grew up. Whenever I was out at night and turned the last corner, I’d see the light of that lamppost.

I went with the image. I kept the syllable count but gave up on sticking with just nouns. I could write a lengthy essay about all the other meanings the lamppost holds for me, but this is poetry; interpretation belongs to the reader. 

It is dark and dreary in my neck of the woods today, pouring rain… perhaps that’s another reason the lamppost remained.

I needed a bit of light.

To the Lamppost

Your
good light
still guides me
home through darkest
night

Intimate conversation poem

with thanks to Barb Edler for the Open Write inspiration on Ethical ELA. Barb invited poets to speak directly to a subject, perhaps a person from the past or present, a beloved or loathed object, or even a dream, frustration, or desire.

Refuge

In the dead of winter
in the dark of night
in the starlit silence
you come

to sleep
in the old
twig-vine wreath
on the front door

tiny warm presence
of which I’d be unaware
if not for the pull
of the stars

the frigid bite
of the night
is worth the sight
if only for a moment

so I open
the door

soft sudden flutter
wings taking flight
in the cold cold night

oh little bird
that I cannot see
you cannot know
how your presence
comforts me

that in this barren season
before the time
of nesting
you find your place
of resting

upon my door

little winged creature
of first blessing

*******

Note: Sea creatures and birds were the first living things blessed by God, Genesis 1:22.

Said wreath. When I woke before dawn, remembering there’s a comet to be observed, I bundled up to try for a view from the front porch. The little unseen bird flew out of the wreath as I opened the door. There is no nest; I am not sure where the bird tucks in but the idea of it sleeping against the safety of my door in winter makes a metaphor of immense comfort to me. I can’t determine if it’s a house finch (they build nests in my wreaths each spring) or a Carolina wren, tiny bird with a big, gorgeous song. In the darkness I can only hear small wings beating for a split second as it takes flight. Whatever it is… it is welcome.

Spiritual journey: A word

with thanks to Margaret Simon for hosting the Spiritual Journey writers on the first Thursday of the year

Perhaps you’re in the the habit of choosing a focus word at the outset of each year. A word like simplify or savor (these have been my “one little word” in the past). The general idea is that the word serves as a filter for viewing and processing daily life. It’s meant to enrich and inspire, to make you notice more, extract more.

A well-chosen word has power. Writers know this.

As I contemplate the power of a single word being a tool for the spiritual journey, two things come to mind: A story and a song.

Since childhood I’ve loved The Chronicles of Narnia. I reread the books every few years. In The Magician’s Nephew children from our world find their way (accidentally) into a dusky world that seems to be devoid of life. The sun, much bigger and older than ours, is weary and blood-red. Clearly there has been life, for the kids find a castle and eventually a gallery of people wearing royal finery, seated in chairs along the walls. They are like wax figures, a complete mystery to the children, who go on to have a disagreement and (unfortunately) set deep magic to work (after falling prey to a psychological enchantment. You must read the book for the full effect; in all best fantasies psychology and wisdom are more powerful than ‘magic’). The children inadvertently awaken the last figure in the great hall, who rises to meet them. Jadis (whose name appears to be a combination of long ago or there are days before and witch) is the last queen of Charn, this desolate place. She confesses to usurping the throne by overthrowing her sister at the end of a bloody civil war. Jadis didn’t win this war. Instead, she destroyed all living things in that world except herself by using the Deplorable Word, an ancient and feared secret for which she paid a “terrible price” to obtain.

One word.

Shall we move onto the song?

Martin Luther, the force behind the Reformation, composed the hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” between 1527 and 1529. Consider his third verse:

And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim,—
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo! His doom is sure,—
One little word shall fell him.

“One little word”… puts an end to Satan and evil. What might this all-powerful word be? Scholars say Luther’s hymn draws from Psalm 46:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;

Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.

There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.

God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early.

The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted.

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.

Come, behold the works of the Lord, what desolations he hath made in the earth.

He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.

Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.

Might the one little word be Truth? As in Luther’s words, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us? As in Be still and know the truth of God in Psalm 46? As in If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free, the words of Christ, John 8:31-32? Or one little word as in the Word, John 1: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…all things were made through him…in him was life and the life was the light of men…the darkness has not overcome it…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…?

I circle back to rest on this premise: There’s spiritual power in a single word.

The greatest battles of life are, after all, spiritual. We struggle with truth. Consider Pilate’s words to Jesus, awaiting judgment in the hall of his palace fortress: Quid est veritas…What is truth?

Truth is, evil abounds. It reigns in destruction, in violence, in hungry power-grabs (i.e., Jadis; in the end, is truth not the inherent value of fiction?). And we hardly need more proof that words matter, as we continue to witness the destructive consequences of bullying on society.

We desperately need an anti-Deplorable word, do we not. One that edifies, helps, and heals. If it is not Truth, then maybe Forgive. Or Bless. Would we be about destruction, if we are actively harnessing the power of these words?

I come at last to my one little word for the past two years, which has served me better than any other.

Awe.

It has several definitions and facets, some of which contrast. It encompasses wonder, reverence, and fear. I sense all of these in Luther’s words. In Psalm 46. Awe is rooted in the realization—the truth—that our existence is part of something far greater than ourselves. Psychologists say that sense of awe has a powerful effect on our well-being. When the idea of awe as my own “one little word” came to me in 2020, I wasn’t even looking for it. I was tired. My husband was still recovering from two heart surgeries following cardiac arrest and resuscitation; COVID-19 was spreading across the planet. I didn’t feel like playing with words.

The word came anyway.

In these two years, rolling into three, my husband lived to officiate our son’s marriage, to see the birth of our granddaughter, Micah, and to see our oldest graduate from seminary and enroll in a PhD program (our same boy who said he’d never marry, have children, or go in the ministry). The youngest has graduated, is flourishing in his funeral career of serving and comforting the bereaved (our same boy who, as a toddler, was fascinated by the wise men of the nativity narrative and especially myrrh…which is used in preparing the dead for burial). Our oldest granddaughter has skipped first grade and is thriving in second. Micah, now fifteen months old, picks up books and mimics the prosody of reading; she opens hymnals and sings in her own way. Everywhere I turn, awe abounds. It reaches out every single day from nature itself…this is why I write of birds and the stars so often.

It’s even in my dreams. Last night I dreamed of a bright-eyed bird burrowing in leaves and pine straw that had gathered at the edge of my door. While I am prone to researching such symbolism until I exhaust myself, I’d see it as awe coming to live at my portal, always waiting for me to open myself to it. This much I know: awe has been a very real entity, a Presence.

Most definitely my guide on the spiritual journey.

Heron

a triolet

with thanks to the heron

Every morning, at the corner of the pond
when I see the huddled heron
it calls my hunkered heart to respond.
Every morning, at the corner of the pond
with a wave of nature’s reflective wand
my muddled spirit is less bleak, less barren…
every morning, at the corner of the pond
when I see the huddled heron.

Grey Heron. PapaPiperCC BY-ND 2.0.

A heron is, in short, a symbol that all shall be well

Holly

History believed in your magic power
Object of healing and deliverance from evil
Legend made you a crown for Saturn’s brow
Lore of Druids: tree of eternal life, that lightning won’t strike
Yuletide of yore endures

The holly tree was believed to have eternal life as it remained green in winter when other trees appeared to die. It is a symbol of endurance. This lovely specimen grows by the playground of the school where I work. Stuff of ancient legends and lore aside, its merry, festive appearance is a spirit-lifter here on the cusp of winter break

Round yon December

a triolet for my grandmother

Come December, I’m remembering you
in the lights and silent night
—how years, like snow and feathers, flew—
Come December, I’m remembering you
at sight of ruby-red cardinals, too.
On the wings of the morning, all is bright…
come December, I’m remembering you
in the lights and silent night.

December is my grandmother’s month. She was born the day after Christmas, was married in the middle of the month at age 20, and died the day before Christmas Eve, at 90. She loved the season, children, cardinals, and the color red, symbolic of her name: Ruby. “Silent Night” was her favorite carol; whenever I hear it, she is near. Her home place and resting place are in the outskirts of a rural town named for the dawn… “on the wings of the morning” is borrowed from my favorite Psalm, 139, a hymn to the omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence of God.

The cardinal ornament in the photo was a gift from a friend yesterday. I hung it on the tree last night after choir practice with the kids at church. They’re singing “Silent Night” in the worship service on Sunday.

Grandma, you would love it all.

Sleep in heavenly peace.

Personality color poem

with thanks to Tammi Belko, host of today’s Ethical ELA Open Write. Tammi invited participants to take a personality color test and to write an “I am” poem based on the color results and their traits.

I took the test. I began to write a series of “I am” stanzas when the poem went running off in its own direction…

True Color 

I am
the three bands
on the ring finger
of my left hand:

one worn by
my grandmother
engraved with
her initials
and my grandfather’s
alongside
their wedding date:
December 12, 1936
(the day after
Edward abdicated
for Wallis)

one worn by
my mother-in-law
a 1953 engagement
between a widow
and a widower
with two children each
with the long reach
of duty in Korea
calling

one given
to me
on the day
I married
thirty-seven years
two sons
and two granddaughters
ago…

a poet
named after
fleeting morning ice
may say
nothing gold
can stay

but I endure
because

that is what love does

like many before me

I am gold

*******

Interesting…

Ekphrastic poem: Ripe Tomatoes

with thanks to Katrina Morrison, host of Ethical ELA’s Tuesday Open Write. Katrina writes: “The worlds of art and poetry meet in the ekphrastic poem. Whether you are viewing an original work in a museum or viewing it virtually, describing it through poetry is the definition of ekphrastic poetry.” Poet Ada Limón shares this reflection in The Slowdown podcast 780: “One of the things I love about art is how we bring ourselves to whatever it is we are experiencing. Whether we want to or not, we see ourselves in the film, the poem, the painting, the song.”

I write of the artwork that came to mind first; I was not the first to see myself in it…

Ripe Tomatoes

Long ago
your father
gave me a card
with a painting
of a woman
in a long white chemise
holding a basket
of ripe tomatoes
in her thin arms

her body is curved
toward the child
at her feet

an overall-clad boy
with a mass
of sunlit curls
atop his head
bent in eating
a tomato
straight from the vine

your father said
the painting
so reminded him
of you
and me

your curls
were black
of course
instead of gold
and I was never 
a gardener

yet I can smell
the tangy greenness
of tomato plants
as the summer sun
beats down
over the rolling hills
and old barns
and tall yellowing grasses
rippling in the wind

could be a scene
from around
the bend

even now

I feel the 
warm tomato skins
under my hand

as I think
of the abundance
I have been given

—take, eat,
my summer child
of the bounty 
of the vine
so deeply rooted
so long ago

and know

love never ceases
to preserve
transcend

and grow

“Ripe Tomatoes.” Robert Duncan.

Spiritual Journey: Holy

Why is it that, as I began to think of a November theme for my Spiritual Journey writer-friends, that the word holy came to mind?

I suppose it was connected with the start of the holiday season…holiday, from the original Old English, hāligdæg, means holy day.

I am writing this on a holy day to many around the world, All Soul’s Day. Following All Saint’s Day. Following All Hallow’s Eve…a holy triduum for remembering the dead, collectively known as Allhallowtide. On Halloween morning I saw a mystical fiery rainbow in the clouds, a colorful band of light joining earth to heaven. Genesis 9:13 played in my mind: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. A promise from God. There’s also a rainbow around the throne of God (Revelation 4:3).

Holy. As in hallowed.

I think of votive candles lit in memory of deceased loved ones, the bright flames driving the dark away, the way that hope does in the despairing soul. So many holy-day observances involve the lighting of candles.

My little granddaughter had her first birthday at the end of October. A solitary candle burned on her cake, representing her one year of life.

Holy.

It also means blessed.

For me, holy is closely linked to my life-word, awe, in that they encompass the divine and a reverence for it. Even a shadowing of fear. When I was a small child attending church with my grandparents, I sensed all of this on entering the sanctuary, long before I had words to convey it. I did not know, then, about the ancient Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle where God’s presence dwelt, that only the High Priest could enter it once a year to make atonement for the Israelites, and that anyone else trying to do so would die. Even the High Priest had to prepare with great care.

Holy. It means sacred, consecrated, set apart.

The ancient Jews considered the Holy of Holies the spiritual junction of heaven and earth.

I looked at all the white-rail decor in that long-ago Methodist church and could not understand, describe, or convey…but I sensed holy and trembled.

My other granddaughter, age six, was baptized recently. I watched her, robed in white, descending into the baptismal pool where the preacher—her stepfather, my son—held out his hand to her. Her little face was aglow with the faith of a child (the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these), looking up at her dad with absolute trust. My son was overcome with emotion.

Holy. Pure.

My spirit clings to the word. Although it seems like life is often consumed by an ever-raging sea of unholiness, the holy is always there, like a luminous lifeline. It shines in faces of children. It swells in birdsong, in music so beautifully composed that it draws tears. It lives in extraordinary, self-sacrificial acts of love. It manifests itself in healing. In forgiveness. I see it often in nature, obeying its patterns, displaying such breathtaking glory and wonders that one forgets the brokenness of things. Yes, when the slant of light is just right, one gets a shot of awe, a glimpse above and beyond, a perceiving of holy. Of the presence of God. Like a fiery rainbow on Halloween morning.

In the end, it is all a matter of opening the soul to seeing.

Here’s to finding the holy in every day of the journey.

I wrote a poem about the rainbow on All Hallow’s Eve; people forget the Christian connections to the day.

Spiritual Journey Friends, please share your links in the comments below – blessings to you all!