I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one … I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. ~Maya Angelouon her 70th birthday, citing a quote from Carl Buehner
I learned from my mother how to love the living, to have plenty of vases on hand in case you have to rush to the hospital with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole grieving household, to cube home-canned pears and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point. I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know the deceased, to press the moist hands of the living, to look in their eyes and offer sympathy, as though I understood loss even then. I learned that whatever we say means nothing, what anyone will remember is that we came. I learned to believe I had the power to ease awful pains materially like an angel. Like a doctor, I learned to create from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once you know how to do this, you can never refuse. To every house you enter, you must offer healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself, the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch. ~Julie Kasdorf– “What I Learned from my Mother”
Usually a mom knows best about these things — how to love others when and how they need it and how to ease pain, not become one. We don’t always get it right though, and dads can do it better.
Showing up with food is always a good thing but it is the showing up part that is the real food; bringing along a cake is simply the icing.
This is a good reminder that as a doctor, my usefulness has tended to depend on another’s suffering. No illness, no misery, no symptoms and I’m out of a job. I can only hope that someday that might be the case. What a world it would be, especially as now suffering is universal.
And then I can still be a mom and grandmom even if there is no more doctor work to be done: ….if I’d known it could help, I’d have baked a cake and shown up with it…
The cat calls for her dinner. On the porch I bend and pour brown soy stars into her bowl, stroke her dark fur. It’s not quite night. Pinpricks of light in the eastern sky. Above my neighbor’s roof, a transparent moon, a pink rag of cloud. Inside my house are those who love me. My daughter dusts biscuit dough. And there’s a man who will lift my hair in his hands, brush it until it throws sparks. Everything is just as I’ve left it. Dinner simmers on the stove. Glass bowls wait to be filled with gold broth. Sprigs of parsley on the cutting board. I want to smell this rich soup, the air around me going dark, as stars press their simple shapes into the sky. I want to stay on the back porch while the world tilts toward sleep, until what I love misses me, and calls me in. ~Dorianne Laux “On the Back Porch” from Awake
If just for a moment, when the world feels like it is tilting so far I just might fall off, there is a need to pause to look at where I’ve been and get my feet back under me.
The porch is a good place to start: a bridge to what exists beyond without completely leaving the safety of inside.
I am outside looking square at uncertainty and still hear and smell and taste the love that dwells just inside these walls.
What do any of us want more than to be missed if we were to step away or be taken from this life?
Our voice, our words, our heart, our touch never to be replaced, its absence a hole impossible to fill?
When we are called back inside to the Love that made us who we are, may we leave behind the outside world more beautiful because we were part of it.
What words or harder gift does the light require of me carving from the dark this difficult tree?
What place or farther peace do I almost see emerging from the night and heart of me?
The sky whitens, goes on and on. Fields wrinkle into rows of cotton, go on and on. Night like a fling of crows disperses and is gone.
What song, what home, what calm or one clarity can I not quite come to, never quite see: this field, this sky, this tree. ~Christian Wiman, “Hard Night”
Even the darkest night has a sliver of light left, if only in our memories. We remember how it was and how it can be — the promise of better to come.
While the ever-changing sky swirls as a backdrop, a tree on a hill became the focal point, as it must, like a black hole swallowing up all pain, all suffering, all evil threatening to consume our world.
What clarity, what calm, what peace can be found at the foot of that tree, where our hearts can rest in this knowledge: our sin died there, once and for all and our names are carved into its roots for all time.
To every man His treehouse, A green splice in the humping years, Spartan with narrow cot And prickly door.
To every man His twilight flash Of luminous recall of tiptoe years in leaf-stung flight;
To every man His house below And his house above— With perilous stairs Between. ~James Emmanuel from “The Treehouse”
A shudder of joy runs up The trunk; the needles tingle; One bird uncontrollably cries. The wind changes round, and I stir Within another’s life. Whose life? Who is dead? Whose presence is living? When may I fall strangely to earth,
Who am nailed to this branch by a spirit? Can two bodies make up a third? To sing, must I feel the world’s light? My green, graceful bones fill the air With sleeping birds. Alone, alone And with them I move gently. I move at the heart of the world. ~James Dickey from “In the Treehouse at Night”
My father’s treehouse is twenty five years old this summer, lonesome and empty in our front yard, a constant reminder of his own abandoned Swiss Family Robinson dreams. Over the years, it has been the setting for a local children’s TV show, laser tag wars, sleep overs and tea parties, even my writer’s retreat with a deck side view of the Cascades to the east, the Canadian Coastal Range to the north and Puget Sound to the west. Now it is a sad shell no longer considered safe, as the support branches in our 100+ year old walnut tree are weakening with age and time. It is on our list of farm restoration projects, but other falling down buildings must be prioritized first.
My father’s dream began in February 1995 when our sons were 8 and 6 years old and our daughter just 2. We had plenty of recycled lumber on our old farm and an idea about what to build. Dad, retired from his desk job and having recently survived a lymphoma diagnosis and treatment, had many previous daunting building projects to his credit, and a few in his mind that he was yet to get to. He was eager to see what he could construct for his grandkids by spring time. He doodled out some sketches of what might work in the tree, and contemplated the physics of a 73 year old man scaling a tree vs. building on the ground and hoisting it up mostly completed. I got more nervous the more I thought about it and hoped we could consider a project less risky, and hoping the weather wouldn’t clear enough for construction to start any time soon.
The weather cleared as simultaneously my father’s health faded. His cancer relapsed and he was sidelined with a series of doctor’s appointments, hospitalizations and treatment courses. He hung on to that hope of getting the treehouse going by summer, still thinking it through in his mind, still evaluating what he would need to buy to supplement the materials already gathered and piled beneath the tree. In the mean time he lost physical strength day by day.
His dream needed to proceed as he fought his battle, so I borrowed library books on treehouses, and hired two college age brothers who lived down the road to get things started. I figured if my dad got well enough to build again, at least the risky stuff could be already done by the young guys. These brothers took their job very seriously. They pored over the books, took my dad’s plans, worked through the details and started in. They shinnied up the tree, put up pulleys on the high branches and placed the beams, hoisting them by pulling on the ropes with their car bumper. It was working great until the car bumper came off.
I kept my dad updated long distance with photos and stories. It was a diversion for him, but the far off look in his eye told me he wasn’t going to be building anything in this world ever again. He was gone by July. The treehouse was done a month later. It was everything my dad had dreamed of, and more. It had a deck, a protective railing, a trap door, a staircase. We had an open tree celebration and had 15 neighbors up there at once. I’m sure dad was sipping lemonade with us as well, enjoying the view.
Now all these years later, the treehouse is tilting on its foundation as the main weight bearing branch is weakening. We’ve declared it condemned, not wanting to risk an accident. As I look out my front window, it remains a daily reminder of past dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled. Much like my father’s body, the old walnut tree is weakening, hanging on by the roots, but its muscle strength is failing. It will, sometime, come down in one of our frequent fierce windstorms, just as its nearby partner did a few years ago.
The treehouse dream branched out in another way. One of the construction team brothers decided to try building his own as a place to live in his woods, using a Douglas Fir tree as the center support and creating an octagon, two stories, 30 feet off the ground. He worked on it for two years and moved in, later marrying someone who decided a treehouse was just fine with her, and for 20+ years, they’ve been raising five children there. The treehouse kids are old enough to come work for me on our farm, a full circle feeling for me. This next generation is carrying on a Swiss Family Robinson dream that began in my father’s mind and our front yard.
I still have a whole list full of dreams myself, some realized and some deferred by time, resources and the limits of my imagination. I feel the clock ticking too, knowing that the years and the seasons slip by me faster and faster as I near the age my father was when he first learned he had cancer. It would be a blessing to me to see others live out the dreams I have held so close.
Like my father, I will some day teeter in the wind like our old tree, barely hanging on. When ready to fall to the ground, I’ll reach out with my branches and hand off my dreams too. The time will have come to let them go. Thank you, Dad, for handing me yours.
We grow accustomed to the Dark — When Light is put away — As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp To witness her Good bye —
A Moment — We Uncertain step For newness of the night — Then — fit our Vision to the Dark — And meet the Road — erect —
And so of larger — Darknesses — Those Evenings of the Brain — When not a Moon disclose a sign — Or Star — come out — within —
The Bravest — grope a little — And sometimes hit a Tree Directly in the Forehead — But as they learn to see —
Either the Darkness alters — Or something in the sight Adjusts itself to Midnight — And Life steps almost straight. ~Emily Dickinson
So few grains of happiness measured against all the dark and still the scales balance.
The world asks of us only the strength we have and we give it. Then it asks more, and we give it. ~Jane Hirschfield from “The Weighing”
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring. America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities… ~Martin Luther King, Jr. from a speech April 4, 1967
We live in a time where the groaning need and dividedness of humankind is especially to be felt and recognized. Countless people are subjected to hatred, violence and oppression which go unchecked. The injustice and corruption which exist today are causing many voices to be raised to protest and cry out that something be done. Many men and women are being moved to sacrifice much in the struggle for justice, freedom, and peace. There is a movement afoot in our time, a movement which is growing, awakening.
We must recognize that we as individuals are to blame for every social injustice,every oppression, the downgrading of others and the injury that man does to man, whether personal or on a broader plane.… God must intervene with his spirit and his justice and his truth. The present misery, need, and decay must pass away and the new day of the Son of Man must dawn. This is the advent of God’s coming. ~Dwight Blough from the introduction to When the Time was Fulfilled (1965)
I weep to see such bitter divisions still exist in our country, an echo of over fifty years ago as we fail again and again to learn from past errors.
Here we are, groaning divided once more, walking this Jericho Road together. We cannot pass by our brother, our sister, our child~ anyone who lies dying in the ditch. We must stop and help.
The world asks only for the strength we have and so we give it, but then we are asked to give more and so we will.
We must illuminate the advance of darkness even when, blinded as we are, we run forehead-first into the Tree which has always been there and always will be because of who we are and Who loves us.
It could be you or me bleeding, beaten, abandoned, dying until Someone takes our place so we can get up, free and forgiven, and walk Home.
You love the roses – so do I. I wish The sky would rain down roses, as they rain From off the shaken bush. Why will it not? Then all the valley would be pink and white And soft to tread on. They would fall as light As feathers, smelling sweet; and it would be Like sleeping and like waking, all at once! ~George Eliotfrom “The Spanish Gypsy”
It was gardener/author Alphonse Karr in the mid-19th century who wrote that even though most people grumble about roses having thorns, he was grateful that thorns have roses.
There was a time when thorns were not part of our world, when we knew nothing of suffering and death. Yet in pursuing and desiring more than we were already generously given, we received more than we bargained for. We are still paying for that decision; we continue to reel under the thorns our choices produce — every day there is more bloodletting.
So a Rose was sent to adorn the thorns.
And what did we do? We chose thorns to make Him bleed and still do to this day.
A fragrant rose blooms beautiful, bleeding amid the thorns, raining down as we sleep and wake, and will to the endless day.
Abandon entouré d’abandon, tendresse touchant aux tendresses… C’est ton intérieur qui sans cesse se caresse, dirait-on; se caresse en soi-même, par son propre reflet éclairé. Ainsi tu inventes le thème du Narcisse exaucé. ~Rainer Maria Rilke “Dirait-on” from his French Poetry collection ‘Les chansons de la rose’
(Literal translation of “So They Say” from “The Song of the Rose”) Abandon enveloping abandon, Tenderness brushing tendernesses, Who you are sustains you eternally, so they say; Your very being is nourished by its own enlightened reflection; So you compose the theme of Narcissus redeemed.
This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body. ~Walt Whitman from his preface to “Leaves of Grass”
Time, in so many ways, has been standing still for us over the last few months, fueled by an unprecedented quarantine and social isolation. We anticipate “when things return to normal” but the reality is there will be no “normal” for those who have lost jobs and businesses and family members or their own robust health since February.
And now society finds itself in the midst of anger and argument, marching and shouting to defend those who have lived for generations with injustice and oppression, and continue to face that reality every day, and the majority of us were oblivious.
“Normal” holds no appeal when “normal” is living under a tyrant’s thumb or dying under a knee.
So how do we approach a change in seasons as we ourselves are irrevocably changed?
What shall we do?
We are our flesh: all colors, flawed and fragile. We must look beyond the lashes of our eyes to see and understand the fluency of the poetry found in our bodies. We, each one of us, deserve the patience of being heard.
This summer will stand on its own in all its extravagant abundance of light and warmth and growth and color stretching deep within the rising and setting horizons. Each long day will feel like it must last forever, never ending, yet, like the unpredictable length of our fleshy days on earth, it will eventually wind down, spin itself out, darkening gradually into shadow.
That is the “normal” of our existence because summer always, always ends.
Yet another will reappear, somehow, somewhere, someday. The very poetry of our flesh, the very survival of our souls, depends on it. We will then see beyond our own eyelashes.
Surely a never-ending summer is what heaven itself will be. We shall all be changed, in the twinkling of an eye…
Just down the road… around the bend, Stands an old empty barn; nearing the end. It has sheltered no animals for many years; No dairy cows, no horses, no sheep, no steers. The neigh of a horse; the low of a cow; Those sounds have been absent for some time now. There was a time when the loft was full of hay, And the resounding echoes of children at play. At one time the paint was a bold shade of red; Gradually faded by weather and the sun overhead. The doors swing in the wind… the hinges are loose, Windows and siding have taken a lot of abuse. The fork, rope and pulleys lifted hay to the mow, A task that always brought sweat to the brow. But those good days are gone; forever it seems, And that old barn now stands with sagging beams. It is now home to pigeons, rats and mice; The interior is tattered and doesn’t look very nice. Old, abandoned barns have become a trend, Just down the road… around the bend. ~Vance Oliphant “Old Barn”
There is something very lonely about a barn completely empty of its hay stores. Our old barn has stood empty for several years; we and our neighbors who have used it for years to house a winter hay supply have found other more convenient places to put our hay. The winter winds have worn away its majesty: missing shingles have torn away holes in the roof, the mighty beams providing foundational support were sinking and rotting in the ground, a gap opened in the sagging roof crest, and most devastating of all, two walls collapsed in a particularly harsh blow.
The old barn was in death throes after over one hundred years of history. Its hollow interior echoes with a century of farmers’ voices: soothing an upset cow during a difficult milking, uncovering a litter of kittens high in a hay loft, shouting orders to a steady workhorse, singing a soft hymn while cleaning stalls, startling out loud as a barn owl or bat flies low overhead. Dust motes lazily drift by in the twilight, seemingly forever suspended above the straw covered wood floor, floating protected from the cooling evening breezes.
There was no heart beat left in this dying barn. It was in full arrest, all life blood drained out, vital signs flat lined. I could hardly bear to go inside much less take pictures of its deteriorating shell.
We had people show up at our front door offering to demolish it for the lumber, now all the fad for expensive modern “vintage” look in new house construction. A photo of our barn showed up in local media declaring “another grand old barn in the county has met its end.” That stung. Meanwhile we were saving our money, waiting until we could afford to bring our old red barn back to life.
It started with one strong young man digging out the support posts to locate the rot. Then another remarkable young man was able to jack up the posts one by one, putting in reinforcing steel and concrete and straightening the gaping sagging roof line, providing the old barn its first ever foundation.
And over the last two weeks a crew of two men have replaced the damaged roof and absent walls with metal siding. The barn is looking whole again.
There is a lot of clean up left to do inside: decades of old hay build up and damaged lumber and untold numbers of abandoned mouse nests and scattered barn owl pellets.
Soon, the barn will be shocked back to a pulse, with the throb of voices, music blaring, dust and pollen flying chaotically, the rattle of the electric “elevator” hauling bales from wagon to loft, the grunts and groans of the crew as they heft and heave the bales into place in the stack. It will go on late into the night, the barn ablaze with lights, the barnyard buzzing with excitement and activity.
It will once again serve as the back up sanctuary on Easter morning when we are rained out up on the hill for Sunrise Service.
Now vital signs measurable, rhythm restored, volume depletion reversed, prognosis good for another 100 years.
Another old barn is resuscitated back to life when so many are left to die. It is revived and breathing on its own again. Its floor will creak with the weight of the hay bales and walls will groan with the pressure of stacks.
I must remember there is always hope for the shattered and weary among us. If an old barn can be saved, then so can we.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod? Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; And though the last lights off the black West went Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs— Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. ~Gerard Manley Hopkins “God’s Grandeur”
…the sudden angel affrighted me––light effacing my feeble beam, a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying: …as that hand of fire touched my lips and scorched by tongue and pulled by voice into the ring of the dance. ~Denise Levertov from “Caedmon” in Breathing the Water
Unless the eye catch fire, Then God will not be seen. Unless the ear catch fire Then God will not be heard. Unless the tongue catch fire Then God will not be named. Unless the heart catch fire, Then God will not be loved. Unless the mind catch fire, Then God will not be known. ~William Blake from “Pentecost”
Christ has no body now on earth but yours. Yours are the only hands with which he can do his work. yours are the only feet with which he can go about the world. Yours are the only eyes through which his compassion can shine forth upon a troubled world. Christ has no body now on earth but yours. ~Teresa of Avila
Today, when we feel we are without hope, when the bent world reels with a troubled sickness of shedding blood and spreading violence, when faith feels frail, when love seems distant, we wait, stilled, for the moment we ourselves – not our cities – are lit afire ~ when the Living God is seen, heard, named, loved, known forever burning in our hearts deep down, brooded over by His bright wings~ we are His dearest, His freshest deep down things, in this moment and for eternity.
To live coram Deo is to live one’s entire life in the presence of God, under the authority of God, to the glory of God. To live in the presence of God is to understand that whatever we are doing and wherever we are doing it, we are acting under the gaze of God.
There is no place so remote that we can escape His penetrating gaze. To live all of life coram Deo is to live a life of integrity. It is a life of wholeness that finds its unity and coherency in the majesty of God.
Our lives are to be living sacrifices, oblations offered in a spirit of adoration and gratitude.
A fragmented life is a life of disintegration. It is marked by inconsistency, disharmony, confusion, conflict, contradiction, and chaos. Coram Deo … before the face of God. …a life that is open before God. …a life in which all that is done is done as to the Lord. …a life lived by principle, not expediency; by humility before God, not defiance. ~R.C. Sproulfrom “What Does “coram Deo” mean?”
We cannot escape His gaze. Why is that?
We…all of us, all colors, shapes and sizes… are created in His image, imago dei, so He looks at us as His reflections in the mirror of the world.
And what would He see this week? Surely nothing that reflects the heart or face of God.
I cringe to think. I want to hide from His gaze. All I see around me and within me is: inconsistency, disharmony, confusion, conflict, contradiction, and chaos. And most of all: defiance.
Surely, surely I know best.
I’m not alone: so many others also each know best, calling hypocrisy on one another, holding fast to moral high ground when the reality is: we drown together in the mud of our mutual guilt and lack of humility.
It is past time for us to be on our knees pleading for mercy, certainly not on our knees leaning upon the neck of another imago dei, squeezing out their very life breath and right to exist.
We are miserable reflections, each and every one of us, surely not coram Deo.
All that we have done, we have done onto God Himself. Kind of takes one’s breath away.