Downpress of Dust Upward

Stretching Himself as if again,
through downpress of dust
upward, soul giving way
to thread of white, that reaches
for daylight, to open as green
leaf that it is…
Can Ascension
not have been
arduous, almost,
as the return
from Sheol, and
back through the tomb
into breath?
Matter reanimate
now must relinquish
itself, its
human cells,
molecules, five
senses, linear
vision endured
as Man –
the sole
all-encompassing gaze
resumed now,
Eye of Eternity.
Relinquished, earth’s
broken Eden.
Expulsion,
liberation,
last
self-enjoined task
of Incarnation.
He again
Fathering Himself.
Seed-case splitting.
He again
Mothering His birth:
torture and bliss.

~Denise Levertov “Ascension”

For as a cloud received Him from their sight,
So with a cloud will He return ere long:
Therefore they stand on guard by day, by night,
Strenuous and strong.

They do, they dare, they beyond seven times seven
Forgive, they cry God’s mighty word aloud:
Yet sometimes haply lift tired eyes to Heaven–
“Is that His cloud?”
~Christina Rossetti from “Ascension Day”

We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed .

~Malcolm Guite “Ascension”

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Psalm 130: 5-6 from a Song of Ascents

Waiting is essential to the spiritual life.
But waiting as a disciple of Jesus is not an empty waiting.
It is a waiting with a promise in our hearts
that makes already present what we are waiting for.
We wait during Advent for the birth of Jesus.
We wait after Easter for the coming of the Spirit,
and after the ascension of Jesus
we wait for his coming again in glory.
We are always waiting,
but it is a waiting in the conviction that
we have already seen God’s footsteps.
— Henri Nouwen from Bread For The Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith

Ascension Day observance reminds me that waiting is a hard sweet paradox in the Christian life.  It is hard not yet having what I know is coming. 

But it is sweet to have certainty it is coming because of the footprints left behind:
He has been here among us and, in His ascension, carried our dust to heaven. 

The waiting won’t be easy; it will often be painful to be patient, staying alert to possibility and hope when all seems exhausted. Others won’t understand why we wait, nor do they comprehend what we could possibly be waiting for. 

So we persevere together, with patience, watching and hoping; we are a community groaning together in sweet expectation of the morning.

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Small Graces

— American goldfinch; Winston-Salem, North Carolina

First the horrible, reverberating thud  

against the glass wall of the student union.


Then the discovery, huddled on the sidewalk.

A wonder it hasn’t been stepped on.

Only as I’m holding it do students notice,


a few stopping to ask, Is it dead? No,

just stunned. Probably concussed, tucked in

on itself, black and brassy feathers just as

I remember from my mother’s pocket Audubon.

Her favorite guide for our hikes through the woods

when I was young, listening for meadowlark, for thrush.


She taught me the importance of quiet,

my flipping of the book’s pages, even, too loud.

Behind the closed door of my office, I sometimes

take it from my shelf and leaf through her life list:

a few sheets of spiral notebook paper

tucked inside the front cover. There, in her tight

penmanship, eagles and falcons over Horseshoe Lake,

burrowing desert owls, condors on the coast.

The goldfinch. Here, in my hands. A little

encouragement, gentle tossing motion

by my cupped hand—suddenly remembering flight.


The bird collecting itself for a minute

on a low-hanging branch before skittering off

to a bigger tree, then out of sight. Washing my hands

in the bathroom by my office, I blink at myself

in the mirror. Small graces. Desk clock.

Fountain pen. Old paper, thin and translucent

as onionskin. Nothing to bury or mourn today.

~Jim Whiteside “Life List”

I keep a “life list” of sorts. It isn’t like a birder’s list of species seen, but a collection of those of you who have reached out to me over the decades of my writing.

You dear folks I hear from are as varied as the birds that visit our farm.

Some soar high with adventuresome spirits.
Some are earth-bound, home-loving and egg-providers.
Some are nocturnal while others are early risers.
Some eat only seeds while others prefer worms and grubs.
Some are shy and rarely seen or heard from and others visit every day.
Some sing amazing arias and others squawk and cluck and coo.
Some have been stunned by life and need to be held so gently
until able to fly again.

You all are clothed with a feathery finery,
whether shimmering or flecked with light or simply pure gold.

Each one of you touches my life, sharing some small grace, becoming part of me.

I remember.

Please reach out in a comment here or email directly at emilypgibson@gmail.com

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Blessing My Day

Praise be to the not-nearly-a-girl anymore
clerking at our local grocery outlet
since junior high. Single mom, moved up
after a decade of customer service
to manage four well-ordered aisles
of hairsprays, lipsticks, and youthful glow
in glittering squeeze tubes. Familiar
red-headed, brown-eyed, gap-toothed
smile. Willing to put aside her boxes of chores
to chat with each of us she names by heart.

I forget if she’s Mary or Alice or Jane.
Fine, I answer after she asks, How’s
your day? And driving my sacks
of next week’s meals home, I wonder
why she rises from her labors to greet me,
why she straightens her smock
where it’s pulled up a bit and rides her hips.
Tucks in place a loose wisp of curl.
When I walk by, what does she want to know,
when she asks, How’s your day?
I wonder why so seldom I’ve asked it back.

~Lowell Jaeger “Praise Be” from Or Maybe I Drift Off Alone.

Did you find everything you were
looking for?
 Julie, the magenta-haired

checkout girl, asks, and no, I think,
I didn’t find inner peace, or answers to

several questions I’ve been mulling,
like are we headed for nuclear war and

does the rest of the world think America
has gone bonkers and also, by the way,

I could not find the tofu bacon, and
the chocolate sorbet shelf was empty

(I did find canned pumpkin in aisle four)
but I am silent and smile at Julie who

seems to know what I’m thinking anyway
so I hold back and muse on the view

of the bay this morning when we walked
the dog and the parsnip soup we’ll

make for dinner and realize that total
fulfillment probably jades the senses and

the bagger asks if I’d like help today
carrying my groceries out to the car.

~Thomas R. Moore, “Finding Everything” from Red Stone Fragments

He was a new old man behind the counter, skinny, brown and eager.
He greeted me like a long-lost daughter,
as if we both came from the same world,
someplace warmer and more gracious…

…his face lit up as if I were his prodigal daughter returning,
coming back to the freezer bins in front of the register
which were still and always filled
with the same old Cable Car ice cream sandwiches and cheap frozen greens.
Back to the knobs of beef and packages of hotdogs,
these familiar shelves strung with potato chips and corn chips…


I lumbered to the case and bought my precious bottled water
and he returned my change, beaming
as if I were the bright new buds on the just-bursting-open cherry trees,
as if I were everything beautiful struggling to grow,
and he was blessing me as he handed me my dime
over the counter and the plastic tub of red licorice whips.
This old man who didn’t speak English
beamed out love to me in the iron week after my mother’s death
so that when I emerged from his store
    my whole cock-eyed life  –
    what a beautiful failure ! –
glowed gold like a sunset after rain.
~Alison Luterman from “At the Corner Store”

This week as I shopped in one of our local grocery stores, I witnessed a particularly poignant scene. As I waited in the check out line, the older man ahead of me was greeted by the young cashier with the standard
“Did you find everything you were looking for?”
He responded with:
“I looked for world peace on your shelves, but it must have been sold out…”

She stopped scanning and looked directly at him for the first time, trying to discern if she misunderstood him or if he was mocking her or what.
“Did you try Aisle 4?” she replied and they both laughed.
They continued in light-hearted conversation as she continued scanning and once he had paid for his order and packed up his cart, he looked at her again.

“Thank for so much for coming to work today – I am so grateful for what you do.”
He wheeled away his groceries and she stood, stunned, watching him go.

As I came up next, I looked at her watering eyes as she tried to compose herself and I said to her:
“I’ll bet you don’t hear that often enough, do you?”
She pulled herself together and shook her head, trying to make sense of the gift of words he had bestowed on her.

“No – like never,” she said as she scanned my groceries.
“How could he possibly have known that I almost didn’t come to work today because it has been so stressful to be here? People are usually polite, but lately more and more have been so demanding. No one seems to care about how others are feeling any more.”

She brushed away a tear and I paid for my groceries, and told her:

“I hope the rest of your work day is as great as that last customer. You’ve given me everything I was looking for today…”

And I emerged from the store feeling blessed, like I had scored a pot of gold like a sunset after rain.

Today a while it rained I washed the jars
And then I lit a flame set the water to start
And at the end of the day lined up to cool and seal
Twelve pints of spiced peach jam twenty jars of dill beans canned
From an old recipe that my mother gave to me
Because it’s good to put a little bit by
For when the late snows fly
All that love so neatly kept
By the work of our hands

Lay hands on boards and bricks and loud machines
With shovels and rakes and buckets of soup they clean
And I believe that we should bless evеry shirt ironed and pressed
Salutе the crews out on the roads
Those who stock shelves and carry loads
Whisper thanks to the brooms and saws the dirty boots and coveralls
And bow my head to the waitress and nurse
Tip my hat to the farmer and clerk
All those saints with skillets and pans
And the work of their hands
Work of their hands

Laid out on the counter pull up out of hot water
The work of our hands so faithful and true
I make something barely there music is a little more than air
So now every year I’ll put by tomatoes and pears
Boil the lids and wipe the lip with a calloused fingertip
And I swear by the winter ground
We’ll open one and pass the thing around
Let the light catch the jar amber gold as a falling star
It’s humble and physical it’s only love made visible
Yeah now I understand it’s the work of our hands

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Every Beautiful Thing

If only those parakeets would settle
A little nearer to where I’m sitting, instead of at the tops of far-off
     trees, this morning
Would be so much more remarkable.
One could watch the blackbirds, I suppose, peck their ways like
     Oxford dons across
The flagstone paths and lawns, or the swallows, or the sparrows,
Or the crows. But those birds are so plain—, so…painfully
     available.
No, only those parakeets will do and they will not do
What I want them to. In this, they are like everything else in the
     world.
Every beautiful thing.

~Jay Hopler “Beauty is a Real Thing, I’ve Seen It” from The Abridged History of Rainfall

“Get up,” he says, all of you – all of you! –
and the power that is in him is the power to give life not just to the dead…,

but to those who are only partly alive,
which is to say to people like you and me

who much of the time live with our lives
closed to the wild beauty and miracle of things,
including the wild beauty and miracle of every day we live
and even of ourselves.
~Frederick Buechner -from Secrets in the Dark

May I never just be partly alive,
longing for a far-away untouchable beauty
rather than noticing what is glorious right in front of me.

This is the package of life:
the plain and the mundane,
the painfully and wonderfully available,
the shadowy and the brilliant.

I want to be fully alive to the wild beauty and miracle of every day,
heeding His call to “get up!”
no matter how I may want things to be different,
no matter how I may want to be different.

And so I believe
~truly believe~
I am called to be fully alive, and gratefully acknowledge
the miracle of this and every day.

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Another Wednesday

Each one is a gift, no doubt,  
mysteriously placed in your waking hand  
or set upon your forehead  
moments before you open your eyes…

Through the calm eye of the window  
everything is in its place  
but so precariously  
this day might be resting somehow 

on the one before it,  
all the days of the past stacked high  
like the impossible tower of dishes  
entertainers used to build on stage. 

No wonder you find yourself  
perched on the top of a tall ladder  
hoping to add one more.  
Just another Wednesday 

you whisper,  
then holding your breath,  
place this cup on yesterday’s saucer  
without the slightest clink.
~Billy Collins, “Day” from The Art of Drowning

Some days feel like this:
teetering at the top of a finite number of minutes and hours,
trying to not topple over a life so carefully balanced,
even as the wind blows and the fencing sharp
and the ladder of time feels rickety.

It is a balancing act –
this waking up to try on a new day
while juggling everything still in the air
from the days before.

To stay on solid ground,
while flowing with the river of time,
I anchor deep
into the calm eye of your unchanging love,
reminded, once again,
I’m held up from above
when everything beneath me feels precarious.

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A Day That Perishes

White roses, tiny and old, flare among thorns
by the barn door.
                                For a hundred years
under the June elm, under the gaze
of seven generations,

                                       they lived briefly
like this, in the month of roses,
                                                        by the fields
stout with corn, or with clover and timothy
making thick hay,

                                grown over, now,
with milkweed, sumac, paintbrush.
                                                                 Old
roses survive
winter drifts, the melt in April, August
parch,

           and men and women
who sniffed roses in spring and called them pretty
as we call them now,
                                      walking beside the barn
on a day that perishes.

~Donald Hall “Old Roses” from The Selected Poems of Donald Hall. 

The lily has a smooth stalk,
  Will never hurt your hand;
But the rose upon her brier
  Is lady of the land.

There’s sweetness in an apple tree,
  And profit in the corn;
But lady of all beauty
  Is a rose upon a thorn.

When with moss and honey
  She tips her bending brier,
And half unfolds her glowing heart,
  She sets the world on fire.

~Christina Rossetti “The Rose”

We are continually overflowing
toward those who preceded us,
toward our origin, and toward
those who seemingly come after us.

 
It is our task to imprint this
temporary, perishable earth
into ourselves so deeply,
so painfully and passionately,
that its essence can rise again
invisibly, inside us.

~Rainer Maria Rilke from The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke

There is a rose bush that still blooms decades later on the farm where my grandparents raised their family, next to the walkway where the house once stood. Overwhelmed with weeds and blackberry vines, it still sets my heart on fire to witness its stubborn persistence, thriving through trauma, abandonment, loneliness and adversity. No one comes to water it in summer drought, and though frozen during ice-covering winters, it thrives again in spring with leaf and bud and blossom.

The vulnerable, perishable, and beloved seed will rise again, imperishable.

…let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. 1Peter 3:4

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Undivided Wonders

One grief, all evening—: I’ve stumbled
upon another animal merely being
             itself and still cuffing me to grace.

             This time a bumblebee, black and staggered
above some wet sidewalk litter. When I stop
             at what I think is dying

             to deny loneliness one more triumph,
I see instead a thing drunk
           with discovery—the bee entangled

            with blossom after pale, rain-dropped blossom
gathered beneath a dogwood. And suddenly
             I receive the cold curves and severe angles

             from this morning’s difficult dreams
about faith:—certain as light, arriving; certain
            as light, dimming to another shadowed wait.

            How many strokes of undivided wonder
will have me cross the next border,
            my hands emptied of questions?

~Geffrey Davis “West Virginia Nocturne”

Faith steals upon you like dew:
some days you wake and it is there.
And like dew, it gets burned off 
in the rising sun of anxieties,
ambitions, distractions.
~Christian Wiman from My Bright Abyss

My faith,
refreshed in the light, through the moisture of morning,
evaporates in the drying stress of the day.
May I turn my face to the heavens
each night, ask to be washed
in the mist of God’s renewing dew,
my worries settling like dust,
my wrestle with questions soothed,
my wonder expansive as the skies.

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Broken, But Not Shattered

Under a cherry tree
I found a robin’s egg,
broken, but not shattered.

I had been thinking of you,
and was kneeling in the grass
among fallen blossoms

when I saw it: a blue scrap,
a delicate toy, as light
as confetti

It didn’t seem real,
but nature will do such things
from time to time.

I looked inside:
it was glistening, hollow,
a perfect shell

except for the missing crown,
which made it possible
to look inside.

What had been there
is gone now
and lives in my heart

where, periodically,
it opens up its wings,
tearing me apart.
~Phyllis Levin “End of April”

photo by Josh Scholten

The great mystery of God’s love is that we are not asked to live as if we are not hurting, as if we are not broken. In fact, we are invited to recognize our brokenness as a brokenness in which we can come in touch with the unique way that God loves us. The great call of Jesus is to put your brokenness under the blessing.
~Henri Nouwen from a Lecture at Scarritt-Bennett Center

Some say you’re lucky
If nothing shatters it.

But then you wouldn’t
Understand poems or songs.
You’d never know
Beauty comes from loss.

It’s deep inside every person:
A tear tinier
Than a pearl or thorn.

It’s one of the places
Where the beloved is born.
~Gregory Orr from Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved

Every day, as the sun goes down,
I pause, feeling a bit or a lot broken, remembering how often
I messed up that day, in big and small ways.

I’ve been cracked open, my mistakes leaking and illuminated,
weighing down my heart, impossible to forget,
ready to take wings as I pray for mercy.

With forgiveness, there follows peacefulness.
Broken, but not shattered.
Cracked, but glistening clean.

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A World Where Much is Missing

Leave a door open long enough,
a cat will enter.
Leave food, it will stay.
Soon, on cold nights,
you’ll be saying “Excuse me”
if you want to get out of your chair.
But one thing you’ll never hear from a cat
is “Excuse me.”
Nor Einstein’s famous theorem.
Nor “The quality of mercy is not strained.”
In the dictionary of Cat, mercy is missing.
In this world where much is missing,
a cat fills only a cat-sized hole.
Yet your whole body turns toward it
again and again because it is there.

~Jane Hirshfield “A Small-Sized Mystery” from Come, Thief.

The first time I saw him, it was just a flash of gray ringed tail
disappearing into autumn night mist as I opened the back door
to pour kibble into the empty cat dish on the porch:
just another stray cat among many who visit the farm.

A few linger and stay.

So he did, keeping a distance in the shadows under the trees,
a gray tabby with white nose and bib, serious yet skittish,
watching me as I moved about feeding dogs, cats, birds, horses,
creeping to the cat dish only when the others drifted away.

There was something in the way he held his head,
an oddly forward ear; a stilted swivel of the neck.
I startled him one day as he ate his fill at the dish.

He ran, the back of his head flashing red, scalp completely gone.

Not oozing, nor something new, but recent. A nearly mortal scar
from an encounter with coyote, or eagle or bobcat.
This cat thrived despite trauma and pain, tissue still raw, trying to heal.

He had chosen to live; life had chosen him.

My first thought was to trap him, to put him humanely to sleep
to end his suffering mercifully, in truth to end my distress at seeing him every day,
envisioning florid flesh even as he hunkered invisible
in the shadowlands of the barnyard.

Yet the scar did not keep him from eating well or licking clean his pristine fur.

As much as I wanted to look away, to avoid confronting his mutilation,
I always greeted him from a distance, a nod to his maimed courage,
through wintry icy blasts and four foot snow,
through spring rains and summer heat with flies.

His wounds remained always visible,
a reminder of his inevitable fate.

I never did stroke that silky fur,
or feel his burly purr, assuming he still knew how,
but still fed his daily fill,
as he fed my need to know:
the value of a life so broken,
each breath taken is filled with sacred air.

The depth of his wounds show how much he bleeds.

my wounded friend, as close as he would allow

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Comings and Goings

If I look down, a ferry is always
docking or pulling away from the shore.
I am not always aware of these goings on
anymore than I am my own breathing,
but, when I do take note,
the sense of overseeing this step
in a process that’s both
open-ended and fixed
fills me with a vague dread

while passengers,
whether boarding or landing,
may feel they are finally
getting somewhere

~Rae Armantrout “Somewhere” from Wobble

photo of the ferry Walla Walla run aground by Mike Reicher of the Seattle Times

We live in a state that depends on ferry travel to get across Puget Sound/Salish Sea from the mainland to the islands and peninsulas. Other than the occasional bumpy crossing in windy weather, it is usually a quiet interlude on our way to get somewhere, time to take a brief nap or a few deep breaths. No one thinks about the possibility of trouble when riding the ferry to work or back to home.

This past week, trouble happened. A generator failure aboard the ferry Walla Walla took out power mid-voyage, including ability to run the engine, so the ferry drifted to shore and ran aground. Over 500 passengers and crew were stuck on board with nowhere to go; certainly no routine coming or going except by rescue transport via smaller boats.

A vague dread indeed – I’ll be thinking of ferry rides a bit differently now. I’m relieved no one was hurt, but only inconvenienced. Thankfully I wasn’t on board this particular ferry run, stymied in my effort to try to get somewhere.

I have never been promised my journey to somewhere would be full of puppies and rainbows. In fact, I’ve run aground and had equipment failure aplenty. So when things do go smoothly, I need to acknowledge it for the blessing it is — just like breathing is a blessing of comings and goings.

Take a deep breath and bon voyage.

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