An Inheritance Bereft of Poetry

All day we packed boxes.
We read birth and death certificates.
The yellowed telegrams that announced
our births, the cards of congratulations
and condolences, the deeds and debts,
love letters, valentines with a heart
ripped out, the obituaries.

We opened the divorce decree,
a terrible document of division and subtraction.
We leafed through scrapbooks:
corsages, matchbooks, programs to the ballet,
racetrack, theatre—joy and frivolity
parceled in one volume—
painstakingly arranged, preserved
and pasted with crusted glue.

We sat together side by side
on the empty floor and did not speak.
There were no words
between us other than the essence
of the words from the correspondences,
our inheritance—plain speak,
bereft of poetry.
~Jill Bialosky from The Players

The box of over 700 letters, exchanged between my parents from late 1941 to mid-1945, sat unopened for decades. The time had come.

My parents barely knew each other before marrying quickly on Christmas Eve 1942 – the haste due to the uncertain future for a newly trained Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps. They only had a few weeks together before she returned home to her rural teaching position and he readied himself for the island battles to come.

I’m now half-way through reading them in chronological order. I’m up to March 1943 when my father received orders that he would be shipped out to the South Pacific within days. They had no idea they would not see each other for another 30+ months or see each other again at all. They had no idea their marriage would fall apart 35 years later and they would reunite a decade after the divorce.

The letters do contain the long-gone but still-familiar voices of my parents, but they are the words and worries of youngsters of 20 and 21, barely prepared for the horrors to come from war and interminable waiting. Much of the time they wrote each other daily, though with minimal news to share and military censors at work, but they speak mostly of their desire for a normal life together rather than a routine centered on mailbox, pen and paper.

I’m not sure what I hoped to find in these letters. Perhaps I hoped for flowery romantic whisperings and the poetry of longing and loneliness. Instead I am reading plain spoken words from two people who somehow made it through those awful years to make my sister and brother and myself possible.

Our inheritance is contained in this musty box of words bereft of poetry. But decades later my heart is moved by these letters – I carefully refold them back into their envelopes and replace them gently back in order. A six cent airmail stamp – in fact hundreds and hundreds of them – was a worthwhile investment in their future and ultimately mine.

A Bright Sadness: When My Feet Are Sore

Mo sheasamh ort lá na choise tinne
You are the place where I stand on the day when my feet are sore.
~Irish saying translated by
poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama

We need strong feet to carry us through the hardest pathways of life, stumbling into holes, treading carefully over sharp rocks, scrambling up steep climbs and through the muddiest mire.

Our feet get sore: blistered and calloused, develop tendonitis and fasciitis, suffer bruised toes and fallen arches. When every step is a reminder of our failures and frailty, we beg for a soft landing with each stride.

But more than comfort, we need a stable place of trust to put our feet, to stand firm when standing feels impossible.

Lord, be our landing place when we hurt. May your gentle road rise to meet our sore feet.

The Unstilled World Still Whirled

 

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If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.
~T.S. Eliot from “Ash Wednesday”

 

In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope.
~T.S. Eliot from “East Coker”

 

 

On Maundy Thursday, I arrive back to the beginning,  six weeks later returning to Eliot:
“the unstilled world whirled/About the centre of the silent Word.”

This day:

a day of disquiet and silence,
of Christ taking towel and water to disciples’ dirty feet,
of bread broken and fruit crushed and consumed,
of anguished prayer and the kiss of betrayal,
of stilling the sword,
of watching those He loved run off in fear
and deny they ever knew Him.

In my beginning is my end.
And now the light falls and the darkness begins.
We wait, sorrow-filled, our unstilled souls stilled
by our betrayal, our denial, our hopelessness without Him.

 

A Full Circle Remembrance Day

weddingMy parents Henry and Elna Polis on their wedding day,
Dec. 24, 1942, Quantico, Virginia
He shipped out to the South Pacific front one week later,
not to return until June 1945

 

Sometimes, as a child,  when I was bored, I’d grab a step ladder, pull it into our hallway, climb half way up and carefully lift the plywood hatch that was the portal to our unlit attic.  It took some effort to climb up into the attic from the ladder, juggling a flashlight at the same time, but once seated safely on the beams above our ceiling, being careful not to put my foot through the carpet of insulation, I could explore what was stowed and normally inaccessible to me.

All the usual attic-type things were put up there:  Christmas ornaments and lights,  baby cribs and high chairs,  lamps and toys no longer used.  Secrets to my parents’ past were stored away there too.  It was difficult imagining them as young children growing up on opposite sides of the state of Washington, in very different circumstances, or as attractive college students who met at a dance, or as young marrieds unencumbered by the daily responsibilities of a family.  The attic held those images and memories like a three dimensional photo album.

My father’s dark green Marine Corps cargo trunk was up there, the one that followed him from Officer Training in Quantico, Virginia, to beach and mountain battles on Tarawa, Tinian and Saipan in the South Pacific, and three years later back home again.  It had his name and rank stenciled on the side in dark black lettering.  The buckles were stiff but could be opened with effort, and in the dark attic, there was always the thrill of unlatching the lid, and shining the flashlight across the contents.  His Marine Corps dress uniform lay inside underneath his stiff brimmed cap.  There were books about protocol, and a photo album which contained pictures of “his men” that he led in his battalion, and the collection of photos my mother sent of herself as she worked as a high school teacher back home.

Most fascinating was a folded Japanese flag inside a small drawstring bag, made of thin white see-through cloth with the bold red sun in the middle.  Surrounding the red sun were the delicate inked characters of many Japanese hands as if painted by artists, each wishing a soldier well in his fight for the empire.  Yet there it was, a symbol of that soldier’s demise, itself buried in an American attic, being gently and curiously held by an American daughter of a Marine Corps captain.  It would occur to me in the 1960s that some of the people who wrote on this flag might still be living, and certainly members of the soldier’s family would still be living.  I asked my father once about how he obtained the flag, and he, protecting me and himself, waved me away, saying he couldn’t remember.  I know better now.  He knew but could not possibly tell me the truth.

These flags, charms of good luck for the departing Japanese soldier as he left his neighborhood or village for war, are called Hinomaru Yosegaki (日の丸寄せ書き).  Tens of thousands of these flags came home with American soldiers; it is clear they were not the talisman hoped for.  A few of these flags are now finding their way back to their home country, to the original villages, to descendants of the lost soldiers.  My brother, who now has the flag, has returned it as well to its rightful owners.

Seventy some years ago doesn’t seem that long, a mere drop in the river of time.  There is more than mere mementos that have flowed from the broken dam of WWII, flooding subsequent generations of Americans, Japanese, Europeans with memories that are now lost as the oldest surviving soldiers in their 90’s pass, hundreds of them daily, taking their stories of pain and loss and heroism with them.   My father could never talk with a person of Asian descent, Japanese or not, without stiffening his spine and a grim set to his jaw.  He never could be at ease or turn his back.  As a child, I saw and felt this from him, but heard little from his mouth.

When he was twenty two years old,  pressed flat against the rocks of Tarawa, trying to melt into the ground to become invisible to the bullets whizzing overhead, he could not have conceived that sixty five years later his twenty two year old grandson would disembark from a jumbo jet at Narita in Tokyo, making his way to an international school in that city to teach Japanese children.  My father would have been shocked that his grandson would settle happily into a culture so foreign, so seemingly threatening, so apparently abhorrent.   Yet this irony is the direct result of the horrors of that too-long horrible bloody war of devastation: Americans and Japanese, despite so many differences, have become the strongest of allies, happily exchanging the grandchildren of those bitterly warring soldiers back and forth across the Pacific.  I care for Japanese exchange students daily in my University clinic, peering intently into their open faces and never once have seen the enemy that my father knew.

More than seventy years later, my son still teaches, with deep admiration and appreciation for each of his students, those grandchildren and greatgrandchildren of the soldiers my father hated and likely killed.  Not only does my son teach, but he married a granddaughter of those my father fought.  Their daughter is the perfect amalgam of once warring, yet now peaceful, cultures; symbol of blended and blending peoples overcoming the hatred of past generations.

In coming to the land of the red sun, in coming full circle, my father’s descendant, the teacher and missionary,  redeems my father, the warrior.

It is, on this Remembrance Day,  as it was meant to be.

 

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A Soft-Dying Day

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Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, 
        Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, —
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, 

        And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue —

~John Keats, lines from “To Autumn”

 

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The trees are undressing, and fling in many places—
On the gray road, the roof, the window-sill—
Their radiant robes and ribbons and yellow laces;
A leaf each second so is flung at will,
Here, there, another and another, still and still.
~Thomas Hardy from “Last Week in October”

 

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We think we are mere witness to this,
this transformation happening before our eyes
as unforgiving wind strips leaves from trees
left bare and naked in their bones–

yet we too will be exposed for who we are
under the window dressing we spend so much to create,
too soon nothing is left to cover our flaws
and our bones alone will tell our story of redemption.

 

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A Secret Heart Broken

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…And I think
They know my strength,
Can gauge
The danger of their work:
One blow could crush them
And their nest; and I am not their friend.

And yet they seem
Too deeply and too fiercely occupied
To bother to attend.
Perhaps they sense
I’ll never deal the blow,
For, though I am not in nor of them,
Still I think I know
What it is like to live
In an alien and gigantic universe, a stranger,
Building the fragile citadels of love
On the edge of danger.
~James Rosenberg from “The Wasps’ Nest”

 

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Anger is as a stone cast into a wasp’s nest.
~Pope Paul VI

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The nest was hanging like the richest fruit
against the sun. I took the nest
and with it came the heart, and in my hand
the kingdom and the queen, frail surfaces,
rested for a moment. Then the drones
awoke and did their painful business.
I let the city drop upon the stones.

It split to its deep palaces and combs.

The secret heart was broken suddenly.
~Michael Schmidt — “Wasps’ Nest”
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It hung undisturbed the past few months as its busy citizens visited our picnics, greedily buzzed our compost bin, shot bullet-like out of the garbage can when I lifted the lid.  In short, their threat of using their weaponry controlled all our moves this summer.

This nest is their nighttime respite for a few more weeks before a freeze renders them weak and paralyzed in slow motion.  A thing of beauty outside harbors danger inside. I must not touch this tissue paper football nest with its beating buzzing hornet heart.

Let winter deal the devastating blow. As I am not in or of them, I cannot cast the first stone.

In a few short weeks, as they sleep, the north winds will tear it free from its tight hold,
bear it aloft in its lightness of being, and it will fall, crushed, broken, its secret heart revealed and all that stings will be let go.

 

 

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The Root Goes Deep

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Spun silk of mercy,
long-limbed afternoon,
sun urging purple blossoms from baked stems.   
What better blessing than to move without hurry   
under trees?
Lugging a bucket to the rose that became a twining   
house by now, roof and walls of vine—

you could live inside this rose.

 

I want to know the root goes deep   
on all that came before,
you could lay a soaker hose across   
your whole life and know
there was something
under layers of packed summer earth   
and dry blown grass
to moisten.
~Naomi Shihab Nye from “Last August Hours Before the Year 2000”
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Parched as I might feel,
drying and fragile,
crumbling at the edges
there is still the hope of my roots down deep
waiting patiently
for some moisture to bring me backso I can once again
be blossom
and fragrance
and fruit
and blessing
restored.
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