Once in your life you pass Through a place so pure It becomes tainted even By your regard, a space Of trees and air where Dusk comes as perfect ripeness. Here the only sounds are Sighs of rain and snow, Small rustlings of plants As they unwrap in twilight. This is where you will go At last when coldness comes. It is something you realize When you first see it, But instantly forget. At the end of your life You remember and dwell in Its faultless light forever. ~Paul Zimmer “The Place” from Crossing to Sunlight Revisited
I am astonished by an ever-changing faultless light and don’t want to ever forget my thirst for its illumination: slaked by such simple glories as transcendent orange pink a shift of shadows the ripeness of fluff about to let go, all giving me a glimpse of tomorrow over the horizon of today.
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 fromThe 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.
The city orbits around eight million centers of the universe and turns around the golden clock at the still point of this place. Lift up your eyes from the moving hive and you will see time circling under a vault of stars and know just when and where you are. ~Billy Collins “Grand Central”
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; ~William Butler Yeats from “The Second Coming”
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline.
Here is a place of disaffection Time before and time after In a dim light: neither daylight Investing form with lucid stillness Turning shadow into transient beauty With slow rotation suggesting permanence Nor darkness to purify the soul Emptying the sensual with deprivation Cleansing affection from the temporal. Neither plentitude nor vacancy. ~T.S. Eliot from “Burnt Norton” The Four Quartets
Millions orbiting the center or the center orbiting its millions: we’ve been to Grand Central Station, a relaxed rest stop compared to the moving hive we navigated at Shinjuku Station and Ikebukuro Station in Tokyo, a city four times the size of New York.
Try as I might to picture train stations constituting a “center” holding the city together, I feel these works of man have only a tenuous hold on those who come and go. There is no glue; things fall apart.
The center only holds when it constitute the Source itself- the origin, the beginning and the end and everything in between. Starting from there, no matter how far from the Center, you have no doubt about where and when you are.
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.
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.
In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls Across the open field, leaving the deep lane Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon…
The dahlias sleep in the empty silence. Wait for the early owl.
Dawn points, and another day Prepares for heat and silence. Out at sea the dawn wind Wrinkles and slides. I am here Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning.
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated Of dead and living. Not the intense moment Isolated, with no before and after, But a lifetime burning in every moment And not the lifetime of one man only But of old stones that cannot be deciphered. There is a time for the evening under starlight, A time for the evening under lamplight
Love is most nearly itself When here and now cease to matter. ~T. S. Eliot, verses from “East Coker” in Four Quartets
As I grow older I’m reminded daily of my limited point of view; I can scarcely peer past the end of my nose to understand the increasing complexity of the world around me – to look beyond, behind and through the here and now.
I’m not alone. For uncounted generations, people have sought answers when confronted with the indecipherable mysteries of existence here. We create monuments to the living and the dead to feel closer to them. We make up our own stories to explain the inexplicable.
The Word as given to us is all the story needed as all shall be revealed – still, we wait and wait, watching for Light to illuminate our darkness and Love laid down as never before.
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.