The Road Ahead

He sometimes felt that he had missed his life
By being far too busy looking for it.
Searching the distance, he often turned to find
That he had passed some milestone unaware…

The path grew easier with each passing day,
Since it was worn and mostly sloped downhill.
The road ahead seemed hazy in the gloom.
Where was it he had meant to go, and with whom?
~Dana Gioia from “The Road” from 99 Poems: New and Selected

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone.
Let others follow, if they can!
Let them a journey new begin.
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

Still ’round the corner there may wait
A new road or secret gate;
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.
~J.R.R Tolkien from “Roads Go Ever On”

Like many others, I have experienced the disconcerting feeling of traveling a familiar route with my mind completely disengaged. Suddenly I find myself at my destination without a conscious realization of how I even got there or what I saw along the way. Or maybe I was doing a routine daily task and later couldn’t remember having done it (did I shut off the barn faucet or are the water barrels flooding over all day?) because my head was somewhere else.

We describe this as “auto-pilot” or “body memory” or more distressingly “dissociation” — most therapists prescribe “mindfulness” to reengage us in our daily lives and thoughts. I’m not sure it is mindfulness that I practice, but I do force regular “brain check-ins” to anchor me to a time and place and task. (“yes, I have just passed that intersection where that truck and trailer almost hit me years ago and I am grateful to still be alive” or “I am now shutting off the barn faucet and won’t have to think about it again until tomorrow, thank you very much!”)

I regret “missing out” on experiencing my journey because I was so busy scanning the horizon for what is to come or looking back at where I’ve been, or watching where my feet will land or thinking about anywhere but where I was in the moment.

I need to acknowledge the milestones and not pass them by unawares — stopping at the view points, reading the historical markers, taking a breather at the rest stops. I seek to find the hidden paths and explore them rather than be solely destination-driven.

I must pay attention to who is alongside me and be ready to steady them if they trip or stumble, and pray they’ll catch me if I start to fall.

And most importantly, may I stay pointed toward the lighted inn that is awaiting all of us.

The Coiled Shell of Their Lives

Needing them still, I come
when I can, this time to the sea
where we share a room: their double bed,
my single. Morning fog paints the pale
scene even paler. Lace curtains breathing,
the chenille spread folded back,
my father’s feet white sails furled
at the edge of blue pajamas.
Every child’s dream, a parent
in each hand, though this child is fifty.
Their bodies fit easily, with room
to spare. When did they grow
so small? Grow so small—
as if it were possible to swell
backwards into an earlier self.


One more year, I ask the silence.
Last night to launch myself
into sleep I counted their breaths, the tidal
rise and fall I now put my ear to,
the coiled shell of their lives.
~Rebecca McClanahan from “Watching my Parents Sleeping Beside an Open Window Near the Sea” from Deep Light: New and Selected Poems.

My parents have been gone now for some time, my father over 25 years, my mother now over 10 years. Their dying was a long process of counted breaths and pauses. I witnessed their bodies curling into themselves, shrinking smaller, worn down by illness and age.

I still miss them, reminded of them by the events of my own life, still wanting them to take me by the hand as I navigate my own daily path.

After mom’s death, those possessions not distributed to family members have remained packed up and stored in our barn buildings. I know it is well past time to deal with their stuff as I become keenly aware of my own greying and aging.

Untouched in the bookshelf of our bedroom is a sealed box of over 500 letters written by my mother and father between 1941 and 1945. I know the letters began as they were getting to know each other at college, then going from “pinned” to “engaged” and continue for three and a half more years after a hurried wedding Christmas Eve 1942. By mid January 1943 my newly minted Marine officer father shipped out to spend the next three years of his life on the Pacific Ocean, fighting on the battlefields of Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa, not to return again to the states until late summer of 1945. My mother wrote her letters from a rural eastern Washington community, living in a “teachers’ cottage” with other war wives who taught school while waiting for their husbands to return home – or not.

It has taken me a decade to find the courage and time to devote to reading these letters they treasured and never threw away. Yesterday I sorted them unopened by postmark date into some semblance of order and sat down to start at the very beginning, which, of course, is my beginning as well. Only sixty letters in, I open each one with some trepidation and a lump in my throat about what I might find written there. I worry I may find things I don’t want to know. I hope I find things that I desperately need to know.

Most of all I want to understand the two people who became my parents within the coiled shell of their forty years together, though broken by a painful divorce which lasted a decade. Having lived through that awful time with them, I want to understand the origin of a love which mended their cracked shell, glueing them back together for five more years before my father died.

As I read their words over the next few weeks, I hope I too can cross a bridge back to them both.

We Who are Blended

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year
It’s got to
Be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be taught
To be afraid of people
Who’s eyes are oddly made
And people who’s skin is a different shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught
~ Matthew Morrison from Oscar and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific”

It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater
whose foot is on your neck, 
and an even greater miracle of perception and charity
not to teach your child to hate.
~James Arthur Baldwin

If you’re white and you’re wrong, then you’re wrong; 
if you’re black and you’re wrong, you’re wrong. 
People are people. 
Black, blue, pink, green – 
God make no rules about color; 
only society make rules where my people suffer, 
and that why we must have redemption and redemption now.
~Bob Marley

We’ve got to be taught to hate. I was and so were you.

And not a one of us grows up without that sickening uneasiness about not belonging and not feeling like we fit in with those around us. We crave belonging and most of us seek to blend in.

Yet we are created in the image of God, in most ways more similar than we are different. We have created the differences in our own minds and cultures, not God’s Mind. Our fear of one another is purely man-made.

Yet hating and fearing the “other” is meaningless when we are already the “other.”

As more and more people have their DNA profiles done and discover an unexpected mix of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, we are gaining new brothers and sisters on the molecular level. Many are already blended; most of us are mutts.

I have a white friend who recently discovered a branch of family four generations back where a white man and black woman had married and had several children who could pass as white and married so other light-skinned people. Several children were darker skinned and married black spouses. Sadly, due to the prejudices of the time, the family separated along skin color lines and didn’t maintain contact. Now the descendants have discovered each other. Their family reunion portraits display a colorful spectrum of black to brown to pale white. None of them are “other” any longer when they all are “other.”

So let us celebrate the infinite gradations of Imago Dei, and the redeeming reunion of long-lost brothers and sisters.

And remember — we are responsible for what we teach our children.

Threshed to Death

If you go back to the etymology of the word “threshold,” it comes from “threshing,” which is to separate the grain from the husk. So the threshold, in a way, is a place where you move into more critical and challenging and worthy fullness.

There are huge thresholds in every life.

You know that, for instance, if you are in the middle of your life in a busy evening, fifty things to do and you get a phone call that somebody you love has suddenly died, it takes ten seconds to communicate that information.

But when you put the phone down, you are already standing in a different world. Suddenly everything that seems so important before is all gone and now you are thinking of this.

So the given world that we think is there and the solid ground we are on is so tentative. And a threshold is a line which separates two territories of spirit, and very often how we cross is the key thing.

When we cross a new threshold worthily, what we do is we heal the patterns of repetition that were in us that had us caught somewhere.
~John O’Donohue from an “On Being” interview with Krista Tippett on “Becoming Wise”

I emerge from the mind’s
cave into the worse darkness
outside, where things pass and
the Lord is in none of them.
I have heard the still, small voice
and it was that of the bacteria
demolishing my cosmos. I
have lingered too long on
this threshold, but where can I go?
To look back is to lose the soul
I was leading upwards towards
the light.
To look forward?
Ah, what balance is needed at
the edges of such an abyss.

I am alone on the surface
of a turning planet. What
to do but, like Michelangelo’s
Adam, put my hand
out into unknown space,
hoping for the reciprocating touch?
~R.S. Thomas “Threshold”

Yet three more “mass shootings of the week” making it 32 so far this year:
-garlic festival attendees, WalMart shoppers, entertainment venues –

so which of us will be next?

We are unwillingly forced to a threshold we must cross over. Yet we stand stubborn defending our second amendment rights, immobilized, frozen to tradition while dying on the spot, peering out in fear but never peering inward in self-examination.

What prevents us from stopping this insanity of violence from continuing?

The answer is not that more of us should bear arms so a shoot-out is possible no matter where we go. Mass shooters choose to die in their most public and heinous act of hatred and nihilism – being shot to death is no disincentive for them.

We sweep people into office from both parties who only voice platitudes in the face of this repetitive tragedy and offer no viable solutions. Yes, victims (including children!) and their families need our prayers, but they should never have become victims in the first place. We have failed them, again and again and again.

So how many more innocents need to perish? When is it our own turn to be gunned down while simply living out our daily routine? Instead of submitting to the necessary threshing- a crushing winnowing to blow away the chaff of our lives- we defend the status quo and somehow convince ourselves the next shooter will not come to our store, our church, our school or our neighborhood.

History will continue to repeat itself as we die every day, by our own hand or by others’. We must cross the threshold to sane policies together, arm in arm, united in the need to move forward beyond this mess we have made for ourselves.

We all need a good threshing, badly. We need to be worthy of our privileges. We need, in our desperation, to reach out our hands into an unknown space, searching for that reciprocating touch, hoping and praying Someone is there to grab hold and lead us across to a better day and a better way.


Imagining

I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna
or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.

Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure — if it is a pleasure —
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

I am more likely to be found
in a quiet room like this one —
a painting of a woman on the wall,


a bowl of tangerines on the table —
trying to manufacture the sensation
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

There is little doubt
that others have been fishing
on the Susquehanna,

rowing upstream in a wooden boat,

sliding the oars under the water
then raising them to drip in the light.

But the nearest I have ever come to
fishing on the Susquehanna
was one afternoon in a museum in Philadelphia,

when I balanced a little egg of time
in front of a painting
in which that river curled around a bend

under a blue cloud-ruffled sky,
dense trees along the banks,
and a fellow with a red bandana

sitting in a small, green
flat-bottom boat
holding the thin whip of a pole.

That is something I am unlikely
ever to do, I remember
saying to myself and the person next to me.

Then I blinked and moved on
to other American scenes
of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,

even one of a brown hare
who seemed so wired with alertness
I imagined him springing right out of the frame. 
~Billy Collins Fishing On The Susquehanna In July

Edmund Darch Lewis – Susquehanna
Hayfield–oil painting by Scott Prior http://www.scottpriorart.com

I live a quiet life in a quiet place. There are many experiences not on my bucket list that I’m simply content to just imagine.

I’m not a rock climber or a zip liner or willing to jump out of an airplane. I won’t ride a horse over a four foot jump or race one around a track. Not for me waterskis or unicycles or motorcycles.

I’m grateful there are adventurers who seek out the extremes of life so the rest of us can admire their courage and applaud their explorations.

My imagination is powerful enough, thanks to the words and pictures of others – sometimes too vivid. I contentedly explore the corners of my quiet places, both inside and outside, to see what I can build from what’s here.

When the light is right, what I see in my mind is ready to spring right out of the frame.

A Gentle Occasion

when I turned two

Getting older:

The first surprise: I like it.
Whatever happens now, some things
that used to terrify have not:


I didn’t die young, for instance. Or lose
my only love. My three children
never had to run away from anyone.


Don’t tell me this gratitude is complacent.
We all approach the edge of the same blackness
which for me is silent.


Knowing as much sharpens
my delight in January freesia,
hot coffee, winter sunlight. So we say


as we lie close on some gentle occasion:
every day won from such
darkness is a celebration.
~ Elaine Feinstein, “Getting Older” from The Clinic, Memory

when I turned 6

It is a privilege to turn 65 today, celebrating the unofficial end of middle age and the beginning of senior citizen discounts and elder status. I’m pleased to make it this far relatively unscathed.

When I was an early grade school kid, I worried about everything: whatever could happen would happen – in my imagination. My parents would perish in an accident while I was at school. My dog would get lost and never come home. I would get sick with a dread disease that only afflicts one in a million children, but I would be that one.

The worries went on and on, often keeping me awake in the night and certainly ensuring that I had stomach aches every morning so my mother would keep me home from school where life felt safer. Our pediatrician, who saw me much more regularly than was actually necessary, would look at me over his glasses with a gentle penetrating gaze, put his hands on my shoulders as I squirmed about on the noisy paper on his exam table, and tell me for the umpteenth time I was 110% healthy so there was nothing I needed to worry about. I now try to instill this confidence in my own patients, thanks to that good man.

But I knew I needed to worry; somehow the worry was a talisman that kept the awful darkness of bad stuff away, things like nuclear bombs and polio outbreaks and earthquakes. That is a heavy load for a little kid to carry, making sure everything stays right with the universe. None of it ever happened in my sheltered little life so I must have been doing something right!

Thankfully, by the time I turned nine, I finally learned to coexist with the inherent risks of daily life, as I realized I, in fact, wasn’t in control of the universe. We lived okay through a 6.3 earthquake. We lived through a 114 mph windstorm that took out the power for a week. We lived through my grandpa dying. Later on I lived through some hard stuff that is painful to even recall so I’d rather not.

Growing older means realizing that bad stuff will happen, and it is usually survivable yet the reality is: life on earth itself isn’t survivable. I’ve seen and experienced plenty of traumatic things over 65 years, and have seen how heroic people can be in the worst possible situations. I’ve even been a bit heroic when I needed to be. But I’ve learned my confidence can’t be in myself or anyone else, and rests in Someone who really is in charge of the universe and who knows all that was, is and will be.

Oh, I still worry. It is hard to stop when it is deeply engrained in my DNA, having descended from a long line of worriers. My children are not grateful for that genetic gift to them. I’m sure my grandchildren won’t thank me either.

Yet, every day I snatch back from that darkness is reason for celebration, and today is no different.

Nearly 24,000 days under my belt of celebrating being here.
Hoping for more gentle occasions like this one.

It’s a great day to be alive.

Grace is Glue

Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue.
~Eugene O’Neill

We are born hollering,
already aware of our brokenness –
our emptiness evident
from the first breath,
each tiny air sac bursting
with the air of a fallen world
that is never quite enough to satisfy.

The rest of our days are spent
filling up our empty spaces:
whether alveoli
or stomach
or synapse hungry for knowledge;
still hollering and heart
broken.

So we mend and are mended
through healing another,
sewn up
by knitting together
the scraggly fragments of lives,
becoming the crucial glue
boiled from His gifted Grace,
all empty holes made holy
when filled to brimming
so wholly.