A Restless Sabbath Love

The old church leans awry and looks quite odd,
But it is beautiful to us, and God.

~Stephen Paulus “The Old Church”

A little aside from the main road,
becalmed in a last-century greyness,
there is the chapel, ugly, without the appeal
to the tourist to stop his car
and visit it. The traffic goes by,
and the river goes by, and quick shadows
of clouds, too, and the chapel settles
a little deeper into the grass.

But here once on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire
and burned steadily before them
with a strange light, so that they saw
the splendour of the barren mountains
about them and sang their amens
fiercely, narrow but saved
in a way that men are not now.
~R.S. Thomas “The Chapel”

It’s just a boarded-up shack with a tower
Under the blazing summer sky
On a back road seldom traveled
Where the shadows of tall trees
Graze peacefully like a row of gallows…

The congregation may still be at prayer.
Farm folk from flyspecked photos
Standing in rows with their heads bowed
As if listening to your approaching steps.
So slow they are, you must be asking yourself
How come we are here one minute
And in the very next gone forever?
Try the locked door, then knock once.

High above you, there is the leaning spire
Still feeling the blow of the last storm.
And then the silence of the afternoon . . .
Even the unbeliever must feel its force.

~Charles Simic, from “Wooden Church” from The Voice at 3:00 A.M.

The church knelt heavy
above us as we attended Sunday School,
circled by age group and hunkered
on little wood folding chairs
where we gave our nickels, said
our verses, heard the stories, sang
the solid, swinging songs.

It could have been God above
in the pews, His restless love sifting
with dust from the joists. We little
seeds swelled in the stone cellar, bursting
to grow toward the light
.

Maybe it was that I liked how, upstairs, outside,
an avid sun stormed down, burning the sharp-
edged shadows back to their buildings, or
how the winter air knifed
after the dreamy basement.

Maybe the day we learned whatever
would have kept me believing
I was just watching light
poke from the high, small window
and tilt to the floor where I could make it
a gold strap on my shoe, wrap
my ankle, embrace
any part of me.
~Maureen Ash “Church Basement”

Mom,
You raised your hands while we sang this morning
like I’ve never known you to,
but I guess until recently I’ve never really known you in a church that let you feel alive.

Were you tired of hiding,
or just tired?

Thank you for letting yourself be seen.

Thank you, Lord, for her.
~Griffin Messer from “An Analysis of Worship Today”

There is so much wrong with churches overall,
comprised as they are of fallen people
with broken wings and fractured faith,
we who look odd and lean awry,
so keen to find flaws in one another
when we are cracked open and spilling with our own.

Yet what is right with the church is
who we pray to, why we sing and absorb the Word-
we are visible people joined together as a body
so bloodied, bruised, being healed
despite our thoroughly motley messiness.

Our Lord of Heaven and Earth
rains down His restless love upon our heads
no matter how humble a building we worship in,
or how we look or feel today.

We are simply grateful to be alive,
to raise our hands, to kneel and bow
in a house God calls His own.

The old church leans nearby a well-worn road,
Upon a hill that has no grass or tree,
The winds from off the prairie now unload
The dust they bring around it fitfully.

The path that leads up to the open door
Is worn and grayed by many toiling feet
Of us who listen to the Bible lore
And once again the old-time hymns repeat.

And ev’ry Sabbath morning we are still
Returning to the altar waiting there.
A hush, a prayer, a pause, and voices fill
The Master’s House with a triumphant air.

The old church leans awry and looks quite odd,
But it is beautiful to us and God.
~Stephen Paulus

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: A Broken Heart

The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit:
a broken and contrite heart
Psalm 51:17

Every day, as the sun goes down,
I consider how I messed up that day
in big and small ways –
how I broke and splintered when I needed to bend.

My mistakes seem illuminated,
weighing down my heart,
and impossible to forget.

Yet, as I pray for mercy,
there follows a peacefulness.
The slate, one more time,
is wiped clean, whiter than snow.

I remember, as morning dawns,
there is glue for fractures,
there is healing for broken hearts,
a promise provided by each new day.

O Lord, I am given another chance to get it right.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

Miserere mei, Deus: secundum magnam misericordiam tuam.
Et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum,
dele iniquitatem meam.

Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea:
et a peccato meo munda me.
Quoniam iniquitatem meam ego cognosco:
et peccatum meum contra me est semper.
Tibi soli peccavi, et malum coram te feci:
ut justificeris in sermonibus tuis, et vincas cum judicaris.

Ecce enim in iniquitatibus conceptus sum:
et in peccatis concepit me mater mea.
Ecce enim veritatem dilexisti:
incerta et occulta sapientiae tuae manifestasti mihi.

Asperges me hysopo, et mundabor:
lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.
Auditui meo dabis gaudium et laetitiam:
et exsultabunt ossa humiliata.

Averte faciem tuam a peccatis meis:
et omnes iniquitates meas dele.
Cor mundum crea in me, Deus:
et spiritum rectum innova in visceribus meis.
Ne proiicias me a facie tua:
et spiritum sanctum tuum ne auferas a me.

Redde mihi laetitiam salutaris tui:
et spiritu principali confirma me.
Docebo iniquos vias tuas:
et impii ad te convertentur.

Libera me de sanguinibus, Deus, Deus salutis meae:
et exsultabit lingua mea justitiam tuam.
Domine, labia mea aperies:
et os meum annuntiabit laudem tuam.

Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium, dedissem utique:
holocaustis non delectaberis.
Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus:
cor contritum, et humiliatum, Deus, non despicies.

Benigne fac, Domine, in bona voluntate tua Sion:
ut aedificentur muri Ierusalem.
Tunc acceptabis sacrificium justitiae, oblationes, et holocausta:
tunc imponent super altare tuum vitulos.
~Allegri’s Miserere — setting of Psalm 51

Translation (Psalm 51):
Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness
According to the multitude of Thy mercies do away mine offenses.

Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness:
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my faults:
and my sin is ever before me.
Against Thee only have I sinned,
and done this evil in thy sight:
that Thou mightest be justified in Thy saying,
and clear when Thou art judged.

Behold, I was shaped in wickedness:
and in sin hath my mother conceived me.
But lo, Thou requirest truth in the inward parts:
and shalt make me to understand wisdom secretly.

Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean:
Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness:
that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice.

Turn Thy face from my sins: and put out all my misdeeds.
Make me a clean heart, O God:
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from Thy presence:
and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.

O give me the comfort of Thy help again:
and establish me with Thy free Spirit.
Then shall I teach Thy ways unto the wicked:
and sinners shall be converted unto Thee.

Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God,
Thou that art the God of my health:
and my tongue shall sing of Thy righteousness.
Thou shalt open my lips, O Lord: and my mouth shall shew Thy praise.

For Thou desirest no sacrifice, else would I give it Thee:
but Thou delightest not in burnt-offerings.
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit:
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, shalt Thou not despise.

O be favorable and gracious unto Sion:
build Thou the walls of Jerusalem.
Then shalt Thou be pleased with the sacrifice of righteousness,
with the burnt-offerings and oblations:
then shall they offer young bullocks upon Thine altar.

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No Before or After

Now in the blessed days of more and less
when the news about time is that each day
there is less of it I know none of that
as I walk out through the early garden
only the day and I are here with no
before or after and the dew looks up
without a number or a present age
~W. S. Merwin “Dew Light” from The Moon Before Morning

Dear March—Come in—
How glad I am—
I hoped for you before—
Put down your Hat—
You must have walked—
How out of Breath you are—

~Emily Dickinson

I measure time by calendar page turns…

there is less left of time each day
as I look to the sky to see the sun come and the sun go

I greet the new month as the old one passes
reminding myself there won’t be another like it

The morning dew light fades without a before or after
only a moment of blessing
now.

How can this not be the way of things?

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These Old Bones

First day of February,
and in the far corner of the yard
the Adirondack chair,
blown over by the wind at Christmas,

is still on its back,
the snow too deep for me
to traipse out and right it,
the ice too sheer
to risk slamming these old bones
to the ground.


In April
I will walk out
across the warming grass,
and right the chair
as if there had never been anything
to stop me in the first place,
listening for the buzz of hummingbirds
which reminds me of how fast
things are capable of moving.
~John Stanizzi “Ascension”

It has been a harsh and cold winter so far with more days of snow on the ground than not. For a couple weeks there was a constant challenge of finding safe footing when surfaces were snow and ice-covered; local orthopedists were busy putting together broken arms and legs and dislocated joints from too many unscheduled landings.

It seems sometimes winter will never be done with us. The saddest moment a week ago was the discovery as our iced-over fish pond was thawing that it had frozen solid during the sub-zero temperatures – and a dozen decade-old koi and goldfish frozen with it. Our sorrow at this loss is deeper than the pond proved to be; we assumed the depth of the water was sufficient to keep our fish safe from harm as it has for decades. Yet this winter stole them from us.

I know in my head that winter is not forever — February will wrap up its short stay on the calendar and once again I will traipse about with ease without worrying about iced-over walkways. But my heart is not so easily convinced about winter waning. The unexpected loss of our fish reminds me of my guilt from the past: times I have failed to help others when I could have – like the priest and Levite, seeing the dying man on the road to Jericho, cross to the other side and walk past.

So my heart and head and old bones need reminding:
Those who traipse on ice always risk being broken.
Those who have fallen will be righted and put together again.
Those who suffer regret are forgiven even when pain is not forgotten.
And time moves quickly on despite our efforts to hold on to now;
my old bones and tender heart will heal so I can be of use to others.

From the love of my own comfort
From the fear of having nothing
From a life of worldly passions
Deliver me O God

From the need to be understood
From the need to be accepted
From the fear of being lonely
Deliver me O God Deliver me O God

And I shall not want I shall not want
When I taste Your goodness I shall not want
When I taste Your goodness I shall not want

From the fear of serving others
From the fear of death or trial
From the fear of humility
Deliver me O God Deliver me O God
~Audrey Assad

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An Inescapable Network of Mutuality

As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression.
In both instances, there is a twilight

when everything remains seemingly unchanged.
And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware

of change in the air – however slight –
lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.
~William O. Douglas
in a 1976 letter to Young Lawyers of the Washington State Bar Association

Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood.

We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

This is the way God’s universe is made;
this is the way it is structured.

John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms:
“No man is an island entire of itself.
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
And he goes on toward the end to say,
“Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind;
therefore send not to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.”


We must see this, believe this, and live by it…
~Martin Luther King Jr. from a sermon in A Knock At Midnight

Do you know why this world is as bad as it is?
It is because people think only about their own business,
and won’t trouble themselves to stand up for the oppressed,
nor bring the wrong-doers to light.
My doctrine is this,
that if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop,
and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.
~Anna Sewell from Black Beauty

Dr. King’s words and wisdom still inform us of our shortcomings.

We flounder in brokenness
despite our shared global neighborhood,
despite an inescapable mutuality and commitment to brotherhood.

We still stand apart from one another;
even as the bell tolls, we suffer divisiveness
from a lack of humility, grace and love.

Perhaps today, for a day, for a week, for a year,
we can unite in our shared tears:
shed for continued strife and disagreement,
shed for injustice that results in senseless killings,
shed for our inability to hold up one another
as brothers and sisters holy in God’s eyes.

We weep together as the light dawns on this day,
knowing as Dr. King knew:
a new day will come when the Lord God wipes tears away
from all faces and all colors —
a brotherhood created exactly as He intends.

The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Heaven Flings Wide Its Gates

The end of all things is at hand. We all
Stand in the balance trembling as we stand;
Or if not trembling, tottering to a fall.
The end of all things is at hand.

O hearts of men, covet the unending land!
O hearts of men, covet the musical,
Sweet, never-ending waters of that strand!

While Earth shows poor, a slippery rolling ball,
And Hell looms vast, a gulf unplumbed, unspanned,
And Heaven flings wide its gates to great and small,
The end of all things is at hand.
~Christina Rossetti “Sunday Before Advent”

Dawn was defeating now the last hours sung
by night, which fled before it. And far away
I recognized the tremblings of the sea.
Alone, we walked along the open plain,
as though, returning to a path we’d lost,
our steps, until we came to that, were vain.
Then, at a place in shadow where the dew
still fought against the sun and, cooled by breeze,
had scarcely yet been sent out into vapor,
my master placed the palms of both his hands,
spread wide, lightly and gently on the tender grass.
And I, aware of what his purpose was,
offered my tear-stained cheeks to meet his touch.
At which, he made once more entirely clean
the color that the dark of Hell had hidden.
~Dante from The Divine Comedy, II Purgatorio,Canto 1 lines 115−29

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians 4: 6

God brings forth Light through His Word, not once but at least three times:
 
In the beginning, He creates the sun and the moon to penetrate and illuminate the creation of our hearts and our souls. 

In the stable He comes to light the world from below as well as from above so our darkened hearts and souls could be saved from self-destruction.

In the tomb, He rolls back the stone, allowing the sun to penetrate the ultimate night – raising His Son from the dead, in an ultimate defeat of darkness.

He flings open the gates of heaven to the likes of me and in response, I fling my heart through, following the Light.

Showered with the cleansing dew of His light,  I am lit by the glory of God reflected in the many faces of Jesus: as vulnerable newborn, child teacher, working carpenter, healer, itinerant preacher, unjustly condemned, dying and dead, raised and ascended Son of God. 

Let the dark days come as they certainly will. They cannot overwhelm my heart now,  as I am lit from within, cleansed inside and out, no matter how deep the darkness that oppresses on the outside.

I know His promise.
I know His face.
He knows I know.

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

1. Hail the blest morn! when the great Mediator
Down from the mansions of glory descends;
Shepherds, go worship the babe in the manger,
Lo! for his guard the bright angels attend.

Chorus:
Brightest and best of the sons of the morning.

Dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid;
Star in the east, the horizon adorning,
Guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.

2. Cold on his cradle the dew-drops are shining;
Low lies his head with the beasts of the stall:
Angels adore him, in slumbers reclining;
Wise men and shepherds before him do fall. Chorus

3. Say, shall we yield him, in costly devotion,
Odors of Edom, and offerings divine,
Gems from the mountains, and pearls from the ocean,
Myrrh from the forest, and gold from the mine? Chorus

4. Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
Vainly with gifts would his favor secure;
Richer by far is the heart’s adoration,
Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor. Chorus

How do you capture the wind on the water?
How do you count all the stars in the sky?
How do you measure the love of a mother
Or how can you write down a baby’s first cry?

Chorus: Candlelight, angel light, firelight and star-glow
Shine on his cradle till breaking of dawn
Silent night, holy night, all is calm and all is bright
Angels are singing; the Christ child is born

Shepherds and wise men will kneel and adore him
Seraphim round him their vigil will keep
Nations proclaim him their Lord and their Saviour
But Mary will hold him and sing him to sleep

Chorus

Find him at Bethlehem laid in a manger
Christ our Redeemer asleep in the hay
Godhead incarnate and hope of salvation
A child with his mother that first Christmas Day

Chorus
~John Rutter “Candlelight Carol”

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: The Heavens Will Drop Their Dew

The seed will grow well,
the vine will yield its fruit,
the ground will produce its crops,
and the heavens will drop their dew.
I will give all these things as an inheritance
to the remnant of this people.
Zechariah 8:12

Listen, you heavens, and I will speak;
    hear, you earth, the words of my mouth.
Let my teaching fall like rain
    and my words descend like dew,
like showers on new grass,
    like abundant rain on tender plants.
Deuteronomy 32:1-2

He hath abolished the old drouth,
And rivers run where all was dry,
The field is sopp’d with merciful dew.
The words are old, the purport new,
And taught my lips to quote this word
That I shall live, I shall not die

But I shall when the shocks are stored
See the salvation of the Lord.

~Gerard Manley Hopkins “He hath abolished the old drouth”

To God’s people, wandering homeless in the desert for years before being allowed to enter the Promised Land, there is great hope in the possibility of words and teaching coming from heaven.  The dew of heaven becomes the representation of God’s all-encompassing Spirit and gift of grace in this and other Old Testament scripture passages.

Ultimately, God’s Word descended like dew from heaven in the form of a newborn baby in a manger come to dwell among us. 

Like dew, He becomes flesh
at no cost to us,
to be among us freely,
coming in the night,
into the darkness,
as a gentle covering of all things dry and dying,
to refresh,
to restore,
to soften,
to make what was withered fruitful once again. 

We live again because this Word of flesh quickens within us. 

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

Drop down ye heavens from above,
And let the skies pour down righteousness.
Come comfort ye, comfort ye my people;
My salvation shall not tarry.
I have blotted out as a thick cloud,
Thy transgressions:
Fear not, for I will save thee;
For I am the Lord thy God,
The holy one of Israel, thy redeemer.

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: A Rare Radiant Descent

On the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.
I do not expect a miracle
Or an accident

To set the sight on fire
In my eye, nor seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall,
Without ceremony, or portent.

Although, I admit, I desire,
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can’t honestly complain:
A certain minor light may still
Lean incandescent

Out of kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then —
Thus hallowing an interval
Otherwise inconsequent

By bestowing largesse, honor,
One might say love. At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); skeptical,
Yet politic; ignorant

Of whatever angel may choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant

A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content

Of sorts. Miracles occur,
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait’s begun again,
The long wait for the angel,
For that rare, random descent.
~Sylvia Plath “Black Rook in Rainy Weather”

Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this?
Luke 1:18

“How will this be?” Mary asked the angel…
Luke 1:34

Zechariah asks:
How can I be sure of what I’m told?
How can I trust this is true
even when it doesn’t make sense in my every day world?
How can the mundane be made divine?
How can I trust God to accomplish this?

These are not the questions to be asked
– this lack of trust for God’s sovereignty –
so he was struck mute,
speechless until immersed in the miracle of impossibility
and only then assured by the Lord and released from silence,
he sang loudly with praise for God’s tender mercy.

Instead, we should ask, like Mary:
How can this be?
How am I worthy?
How am I to be calm comprehending
this ineffable mystery?
How will I be different than I was before?

It is when we are most naked,
in our most vulnerable and emptiest circumstance –
then we are clothed and filled with God’s glorious assurance.
We do not need to know the details
to accept the moment of radiance He has brought upon us.
We just need willingness to be…
changed.

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

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Change Altitudes

           ‘Regret has to be useless or it’s not really regret.’
                                                     ~Simone de Beauvoir

Rescuers did not find my uncle’s body.
But they found his axe at an icy altitude
impossible to navigate without one.


A little higher up, they found my uncle
’s sleeping bag at an altitude
unsurvivable without one.


You likely have a pen in purse or pocket.
Take it out and write a list of all
you need at your present altitude.


Next, change altitudes. Now, make another list:
the two biggest regrets of your life.
Take your time. Get it right. Because

here is all you need to know about need:
That list of regrets—cross one off.
You are going to need that space later.
~Jessica Goodfellow, “Unreachable” from Whiteout

I’ve known people who lost their lives while hiking/climbing in the mountains or due to some other tragedy – the cascade of decisions leading to their death are sources of regret for all who mourn them, even decades later. Somehow regret is a difficult feeling to let go; we cling to it as if it is somehow an essential part of us.

It is easy for me to come up with a long list of regrets in my life. They seem to grow like weeds – useless, unplanned, unwanted and prolific, threatening to take over any good fruit being produced.

Few of us volunteer to share openly about our current guilt or shame unless we are sitting in a therapy group or AA. Instead it gives us permission to beat ourselves up, going over and over in our minds how we could have done things differently. As a physician, I’ve heard about such heart-ache in my clinical encounters – a patient will regret an impulsive sexual encounter that turned out badly, or drinking and drugging too much, or regret an ongoing conflict with a family member, or wish they had decided to get that vaccine before becoming ill with a potentially preventable infection.

Our list of regrets can be endless and life-destroying.

I understand the pain of regret as I too am a flawed and fractured person with a seven decade history of things done and left undone, words said and unsaid. Even if I think I can somehow manage to cross a regret off my own list – perhaps I apologized and was granted forgiveness, or I tried to make right what I’d messed up — I still know a new regret will occupy its place before long.

I can’t simply fix my own regret list.

No matter what altitude we’re at — down in the pits in the lowest of the low, or up in the highest imaginable, I have come to realize that forgiveness is only possible through a knowledge of God Himself. He came to walk beside us in our low spots and our high spots, no matter where we find ourselves. His work on earth has crossed off our regrets and mistakes and wiped us clean of them.

He did this because He understood our desperate need; thanks to His sacrifice and love, our heart-aches are left at the Cross.

More beauty in words and photos are found in this new book from Barnstorming, available to order here:

If you have already read our book, your review of the book would be deeply appreciated here:

Finding the Real Thing

I am hardly ever able
to sort through my memories
and come away whole
or untroubled.
It is difficult
to sift through the stones,
the weighty moments and know
which is rare gem,
which raw coal,
which worthless shale or slate.
So, one by one,
I drag them across the page
and when one cuts into the white,
leaves a trail of blood,
no matter how narrow the stream,
then I know
I’ve found the real thing,
the diamond,
one of the priceless gems
my pain produced.
“There! There,” I say,
“is a memory worth keeping.”
~Nikki Grimes “Poems”

I have tucked-away memories that still scratch my tender skin:
when they surface, I tend to bleed at the recollection,
feeling the familiar sting behind my eyelids and upside-down stomach.

Some people work hard to completely bury painful history,
unwilling to allow it back into the daylight to inflict even more harm.

I don’t welcome overwhelming memories back,
but when they come unbidden,
I grant them access only because I know,
as this happened to me long ago,
I will feel the sharp ache of sorrow
when I witness bleeding in another.

I was there too.
I am there with you now.
What happened was real but done.
Its healing leaves behind only
a thin line where the bleeding was.