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.

Sorting Laundry

Given over to love,
she un-balls the socks,

lets fall debris of days,
leaf litter, sand grain,

slub of some sticky substance,
picks it all for the sake

of the stainless tub
of the gleaming new front loader.

Given over to love long ago, when her own
exasperated moan bounced off

the quaint speckled enamel
of the top loader

vowing: she’d do this always and well.
She fell in love then, she fell in line—

in a march of millions, you pair them,
two by two, you marry the socks.

~Heid E. Erdrich “Laundress” from Curators of Ephemera at the New Museum for Archaic Media

Settling into the straw, I am grateful for a quiet moment after a 12 hour workday followed by all the requisite personal conversations that help mop up the spills and splatters of every day life. My family verbally unloads their day like so much stored up laundry needing to be washed and rinsed with the spin cycle completed before tomorrow dawns. I move from child to child to child to husband to grandmother, hoping to help each one clean, dry, fold and sort everything in their pile, including finding and marrying each stray sock with its partner.

Not to be outdone, I pile up a little dirty laundry of my own as I complain about my day as well. My own socks are covered in burrs and stickers and resist matching.

I’m on “spent” cycle so I retreat to the barn where communication is less demanding and requires more than just my ears and vocal cords.   Complaints are meaningless here and so are unmarried socks.

In this place a new foal and his vigilant mama watch my every move.

This colt is intrigued by my intrusion into his 12′ x 24′ world. His mother is annoyed. He comes over to sniff my foot and his mother swiftly moves him away with a quick swing of her hips, daunting me with the closeness of her heels. Her first instinct insists she separate me from him and bar my access. My mandate is to woo her over. I could bribe her with food, but, no,  that is too easy.

A curry comb is best. If nothing else will work, a good scratching always does. Standing up, I start peeling sheets of no longer needed winter hair off her neck,  her sides, her flank and hindquarter.  She relaxes in response to my efforts,  giving her baby a body rub with her muzzle, wiggling her lips all up and down from his back to his tummy. He is delighted with this spontaneous mommy massage and leans into her, moving around so his hind end is under her mouth and his front end is facing me. Then he starts giving his own version of a massage too, wiggling his muzzle over my coat sleeve and wondrously closing this little therapeutic triangle.

Here we are, a tight little knot of givers/receivers with horse hair flying in a cloud about us. One weary human, one protective mama mare and one day-old foal, who is learning so young how to contribute to the well being of others.

Given over to love, to do it always and well.

It is an incredible gift of trust bestowed on me like a blessing.  I realize this horse family is helping me sort my own laundry in the same way I help with my human family’s load.

Too often in life we find ourselves in painful triangles, passing our kicks and bites down the line to each other rather than providing needed relief and respite. We find ourselves unable to wrench free from continuing to deliver the hurts we’ve just received.  What strength it takes to respond with kindness when the kick has just landed on our backside. How chastened we feel when a kindness is directed at us, as undeserving as we are after having bitten someone hard.

Instead of biting, try massaging.  Instead of kicking, try tickling. Instead of fear, try acceptance.  Instead of annoyance, try patience. Instead of piling up so much dirty laundry of your own, try washing, folding and sorting what is given to you by others, handing it back all clean, smelling better and ready for the next day.

And even if the socks don’t match exactly, marry them anyway.
Just give them over to love.

Where Have I Been?

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return, we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game…
~Joni Mitchell “The Circle Game”

those lovely horses,
that galloped me,

moving the world,
piston push and pull,

into the past—dream to
where? there, when

the clouds swayed by
then trees, as a tire

swing swung
me under—rope groan.

now, the brass beam,
holds my bent face,

calliope cadence—O
where have I been?
~Richard Maxson “Carousel at Seventy”

photo by Tomomi
photo by Tomomi

Sixty years ago in July, I was a five year old having her first ride on the historic carousel at Woodland Park Zoo before we moved from Stanwood to Olympia.
Fifty years ago — a teenager watching the first men walk on the moon the summer I started work as an assistant to a local dentist.
Forty years ago — deep in the guts of a hospital working a forty hour shift thinking about the man who was to become my husband.
Thirty years ago — my husband and I picking up bales of hay with two young children in tow after I had just accepted a new position doctoring at the local university & we are offered an opportunity to buy a larger farm.
Twenty years ago — with three children and our farm house remodel complete, we have three local parents with health issues needing support, helping with church activities and worship, raising Haflinger foals and organizing a summer local Haflinger gathering of nearly 100 horses and owners, planning a new clinic building.
Ten years ago — two sons launched with one about to move to Japan, a daughter at home with a new driver’s license, my mother slowly bidding goodbye to life at a local care center, farming is less about horse raising and more about gardening, starting to record life on my blog.
Five years ago — two sons married, a daughter off in the midwest as a camp counselor so our first summer without children at home. Time for a new puppy!
Now
O where have I been?
We can only look behind from where we came.

The decades pass, round and round – there is comfort knowing that through the ups and downs of daily life, I am still hanging on and if I slip and fall, there is Someone ready to catch me.


He Looks on Life with Quiet Eyes

  Who loves the rain    
    And loves his home, 
And looks on life with quiet eyes,  
     Him will I follow through the storm;    
     And at his hearth-fire keep me warm;
Nor hell nor heaven shall that soul surprise,    
     Who loves the rain, 
     And loves his home, 
And looks on life with quiet eyes.

~Frances Shaw, “Who loves the rain” from Look To the Rainbow

No jump-starting the day,
no bare feet slapping the floor
to bath and breakfast.

Dozing instead
in the nest
like, I suppose,
a pair of gophers

underground
in fuzz and wood shavings.
One jostles the other
in closed-eye luxury.

We are at last
perhaps
what we are:

uncombed,
unclothed,
mortal.

Pulse
and breath
and dream.

~Marjorie Saiser “Weekends, Sleeping In” from Beside You at the Stoplight. 

Each year, as we grow older together:
grayer, softer, gentler
with ourselves,
each other
and the world.

I pause,
on this day you were born,
to thank God yet again
for bringing you to earth
so we could meet,
raise three amazing children,
and walk this journey together
with pulse and breath and dreams.

It was your quiet brown eyes I trusted first
and just knew
I’d follow you anywhere
and I have.


Way Out Beyond Us

My father would lift me
to the ceiling in his big hands
and ask, 
How’s the weather up there?
And it was good, the weather
of being in his hands, his breath
of scotch and cigarettes, his face
smiling from the world below.
O daddy, was the lullaby I sang
back down to him as he stood on earth,
my great, white-shirted father, home
from work, his gold wristwatch
and wedding band gleaming
as he held me above him
for as long as he could,
before his strength failed
down there in the world I find myself
standing in tonight, my little boy
looking down from his flight
below the ceiling, cradled in my hands,
his eyes wide and already staring
into the distance beyond the man
asking him again and again,
How’s the weather up there?
~George Bilgere “Weather”.

It was hard work, dying, harder
than anything he’d ever done.

Whatever brutal, bruising, back-
breaking chore he’d forced himself

to endure—it was nothing
compared to this. And it took

so long. When would the job
be over? Who would call him

home for supper? And it was
hard for us (his children)—

all of our lives we’d heard
my mother telling us to go out,

help your father, but this
was work we could not do.

He was way out beyond us,
in a field we could not reach.

~Joyce Sutphen “My Father, Dying”

Deep in one of our closets is an old film reel of me about 16 months old sitting securely held by my father on his shoulders. I am bursting out with giggles as he repeatedly bends forward, dipping this head and shoulders down. I tip forward, looking like I am about to fall off, and when he stands back up straight, my mouth becomes a large O and I can almost remember the tummy tickle I feel. I want him to do it again and again, taking me to the edge of falling off and then bringing me back from the brink.

My father was a tall man, so being swept up onto his shoulders felt a bit like I was touching heaven.

It was as he was dying 24 years ago this week that I realized again how tall he was — his feet kept hitting the foot panel of the hospital bed my mother had requested for their home. We cushioned his feet with padding so he wouldn’t get abrasions even though he would never stand on them again, no longer towering over us.

His helplessness in dying was startling – this man who could build anything and accomplish whatever he set his mind to was unable to subdue his cancer. Our father, who was so self-sufficient he rarely asked for help, did not know how to ask for help now.

So we did what we could when we could tell he was uncomfortable, which wasn’t often. He didn’t say much, even though there was much we could have been saying. We didn’t reminisce. We didn’t laugh and joke together. We just were there, taking shifts catching naps on the couch so we could be available if he called out, which he never did.

This man:
who had grown up dirt poor,
fought hard with his alcoholic father
left abruptly to go to college – the first in his family –
then called to war for three years in the South Pacific.

This man:
who had raised a family on a small farm while he was a teacher,
then a supervisor, then a desk worker.

This man:
who left our family to marry another woman
but returned after a decade to ask forgiveness.

This man:
who died in a house he had built completely himself,
without assistance, from the ground up.

He didn’t need our help – he who had held tightly to us and brought us back from the brink when we went too far – he had been on the brink himself and was rescued, coming back humbled.

No question the weather is fine for him up there. I have no doubt.

Not Forgotten

Our memories are, at best, so limited, so finite, that it is impossible for us to envisage an unlimited, infinite memory, the memory of God. It is something I want to believe in: that no atom of creation is ever forgotten by him; always is; cared for; developing; loved. 
~Madeleine L’Engle from The Summer of the Great-Grandmother

…a friend told me a story about a little girl who wanted time alone with her infant brother. Her parents were suspicious of her motives. What if she did something to harm the baby? The big sister was so persistent that her mom and dad finally decided to allow her ten minutes alone with him in his room. After they closed the door, they listened quietly. They felt chills when they heard their daughter say,
“Baby tell me what heaven is like. I’m starting to forget.”
~Sue Shanahan from “Fresh from Heaven”

He of strength and hope,
of infinite memory and everlasting love:
He knows us down to our very atoms ~~
even we who are weak, broken, and undeserving.
He causes us to burst into bloom
in remembrance of having been in His presence.