Holding My Feet to the Fire

God is the fire my feet are held to.
~Charles Wright, from “Ars Poetica II” in Appalachia

If we think we’re going to get off easy in this life
because we do what we’re told to do:
keeping the Sabbath
and our noses clean,
saying what we ought to say
when we should say it
and keeping our mouths shut when
it is best to say nothing at all.

If we think our good deeds
and relative lack of bad deeds will save us,
we have another think coming
and a lot of explaining to do.

We walk through fire
because nothing about God’s glory
is easy. We are hidden in the cleft because He is too much for our eyes to behold.
We remove our sandals
to feel the hot coals of holy ground.
He burns without being consumed
so our hearts are scorched in His presence.

Yet His feet are blistered too.
He knows exactly how this feels.





Summer’s Parting Sighs

When summer’s end is nighing
  And skies at evening cloud,
I muse on change and fortune
  And all the feats I vowed
  When I was young and proud.

The weathercock at sunset
  Would lose the slanted ray,
And I would climb the beacon
  That looked to Wales away
  And saw the last of day.

From hill and cloud and heaven
  The hues of evening died;
Night welled through lane and hollow
  And hushed the countryside,
  But I had youth and pride.

So here’s an end of roaming
  On eves when autumn nighs:
The ear too fondly listens
  For summer’s parting sighs,
  And then the heart replies.
~A.E. Houseman from “XXXIX” from Last Poems

Mornings bring cooler air now, and there is haze hanging over lower ground where the previous day’s heat is rising. We are fast approaching the end of summer season, with its overabundance of constant activity, light and warmth. To be honest, I too am fried to a crisp; increasingly grateful for moisture, a bit of clinging mist, the reappearance of green shoots from parched ground. There is need for restoration after so much overproduction.

I don’t regret growing older, considering the alternative, but do feel sadness about not spending my younger years more aware of how quickly this all passes. I wish my eyes had been more open, my hearing more acute, my tongue devoted to silence, my skin sensitive to the slightest feather touch.

So I make up for it now as best I can – though my vision is cloudy at times, I strain to hear the quietest sounds, I talk when I should be listening, my skin wrinkling and dry. Each day brings new opportunity to finally get it right.

As the days end with foreshortened flare and our weather vane points from the north, I sigh deeply for all that has been.

And my heart replies. Indeed, my heart replies.

Petal By Petal

Life is a stream 
On which we strew 
Petal by petal the flower of our heart; 
The end lost in dream, 
They float past our view, 
We only watch their glad, early start. 

Freighted with hope, 
Crimsoned with joy, 
We scatter the leaves of our opening rose; 
Their widening scope, 
Their distant employ, 
We never shall know. And the stream as it flows 
Sweeps them away, 
Each one is gone 
Ever beyond into infinite ways. 
We alone stay 
While years hurry on, 
The flower fared forth, though its fragrance still stays. 
~Amy Lowell “Petals”

The stream of time flows ever faster,
rushing away my remembrance of yesterday,
the quiet moments today,
my hope for tomorrow.
Every day – a petal thrown into the cascade –
disappears one by one, never to return.
What of my dreams will last
as they droop and drop and scatter?
It is a lingering fragrance their roots leave behind;
that is how to be remembered.



The World Made Whole Again

More than once I’ve seen a dog
waiting for its owner outside a café
practically implode with worry. “Oh, God,
what if she doesn’t come back this time?
What will I do? Who will take care of me?
I loved her so much and now she’s gone
and I’m tied to a post surrounded by people
who don’t look or smell or sound like her at all.”
And when she does come, what a flurry
of commotion, what a chorus of yelping
and cooing and leaps straight up into the air!
It’s almost unbearable, this sudden
fullness after such total loss, to see
the world made whole again by a hand
on the shoulder and a voice like no other.

~John Brehm from “If Feeling Isn’t In It”

photo by Brandon Dieleman

We all need to love like this:
so binding, so complete, so profoundly filling:
its loss empties our world of all meaning
as our tears run dry.

So abandoned, we woeful wait,
longing for the return of
the gentle voice, the familiar smile,
the tender touch and encompassing embrace.

With unexpected restoration
when we’ve done nothing to deserve it-
we leap and shout with unsurpassed joy,
the world without form and void made whole again.




Leading a Lost One Home

I appear at the kitchen door,
spiritual equivalent
of a wet dog from a storm,
tail tucked, trembling.
You open your lives, this life,
provide prayerful provision,
a vigorous toweling down,
a large bowl of kibbles.
I curl up and sleep safe on the rug by your heart,
the chapel that warms His,
and so, restored, return
to the weary world rejoicing,
perhaps to provide
a bracing swig from the fiery word,
perhaps to lead a lost one home.
~Bonnie Thurston “Strays” from O Taste and See

How many times have I shown up
muddy, cold, hungry
and you invited me in,
dried me off,
offered me your supper,
let me sleep warmed and safe?

How many times
did I go back out into the world
with every good intention
of doing the same for other strays
and yet get lost again myself?

You call me back,
whistle me in,
open the door
to let me know
no matter how much of a mess I’m in
your hearth,
your heart
await my return.

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.

Braiding of Moments

To notice the braiding of moments—

This is how the world is built
in the depths we cannot see,
but, stopping for a moment,
we can feel it,
in the solitude of any night.

In the absence of light,
on the precipice of dreams we
can hear a jot of humming,
as the unseen parts of the world spin
and gather themselves within us,
inside the air that eases down
the leaves and sustains, as it moves
toward us, the distant calling of an owl.
~Richard Maxson “Dreams and After”

Last night we were awakened by a summer windstorm – from a muggy stillness where no air moves to sudden breezes flowing roughshod over our bed. Our wind chimes outside clanged a cacophony rather than gentle harmonic tones. The window shades became percussion instruments. Anything not fastened down went airborne.

This fortuitous storm pulled me from a bad dream of a recent stress-filled work day I didn’t manage well. As I woke startled to bed sheets blowing, I gulped at the fresh air as it passed by, allowing my dream to exhale right through the window, never to return.

Life’s intertwined moments, good, bad and indifferent, remain carefully braided together, bound and strengthened so the weaker strands are held steadfast by the enveloping twists and turns of those sturdier ones.

What was, is and will be are held together unbroken, bolstered by tougher stuff than we may think possible.

And we, swinging in the breezes, simply must hang on for dear life, if only by a slender thread.