Bequeathing What We Never Owned To Begin With

The lawyer told him to write a letter
to accompany the will, to prevent
potential discord over artifacts
valued only for their sentiment.

His wife treasures a watercolor by
her father; grandmama’s spoon stirs
their oatmeal every morning. Some
days, he wears his father’s favorite tie.

He tries to think of things that
could be tokens of his days:
binoculars that transport
bluebirds through his cataracts

a frayed fishing vest with
pockets full of feathers brightly
tied, the little fly rod he can still
manipulate in forest thickets,

a sharp-tined garden fork,
heft and handle fit for him,
a springy spruce kayak paddle,
a retired leather satchel.

He writes his awkward note,
trying to dispense with grace
some well-worn clutter easily
discarded in another generation.

But what he wishes to bequeath
are items never owned: a Chopin
etude wafting from his wife’s piano
on the scent of morning coffee

seedling peas poking into April,
monarch caterpillars infesting
milkweed leaves, a light brown
doe alert in purple asters

a full moon rising in October,
hunting-hat orange in ebony sky,
sunlit autumn afternoons that flutter
through the heart like falling leaves.

~Raymond Byrnes “Personal Effects” from Waters Deep

We’ve seen families break apart over the distribution of the possessions of the deceased. There can be hurt feelings, resentment over perceived slights, arguments over who cared most and who cared least.

Thankfully, that didn’t happen with our parents’ belongings. There had been a slow giving away process as their health failed and they needed to move from larger spaces to smaller spaces. Even so, no one was eager to take care of the things that had no particular monetary or sentimental value. We still have boxes and boxes of household and personal items sitting unopened in storage on our farm for over a decade. Each summer I think I’ll start the sorting process but I don’t. My intentions are good but my follow-through is weak.

So my husband and I have said to each other and our children that we don’t want to leave behind stuff which ultimately has little meaning in a generation or two. We need now to do the work it takes to make sure we honor that promise.

There is so much we would rather bequeath than just stuff we own. It can’t be stored in boxes or outlined in our wills: these are precious possessions that don’t take up space. Instead, we bequeath our love of simple everyday blessings, while passing down our faith in God to future generations.

May our memories be kept alive through stories about the people we tried to be in this life, told to our grandchildren and their children, with much humor and a few tears – that would be the very best legacy of all.

So Necessary

You are alive.

And what is it like:
to be alive in this one place of all places anywhere where life is?
Live a day of it and see.
Take any day and LIVE IT.
Nobody claims that it will be entirely painless, but no matter.

It is your birthday and there are many presents to open. The world is to be opened.

BE ALIVE.
~Frederick Buechner from The Alphabet of Grace

“I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
and that necessary.”
~Margaret Atwood from “Variations on the Word Sleep”

For Dan’s birthday:

the boy you were
became the man you are today:
blessed by our God,
so necessary to your family, church and community,
loved by your children and grandchildren,
and by me
~ever more every day~

In this journey together,
we inhabit each other,
however long may be the road we travel;
you have become the air I breathe,
refreshing, renewing, restoring~~
you are that necessary to me,
and that beloved.

Dabbling Free

All along the backwater,
Through the rushes tall,
Ducks are a-dabbling,
Up tails all!

Ducks’ tails, drakes’ tails,
Yellow feet a-quiver,
Yellow bills all out of sight
Busy in the river!

Slushy green undergrowth
Where the roach swim—
Here we keep our larder,
Cool and full and dim.

Everyone for what he likes!
We like to be
Heads down, tails up,
Dabbling free!

High in the blue above
Swifts whirl and call—
We are down a-dabbling
Up tails all!

~Kenneth Grahame from Wind in the Willows

I miss having small children around to show me how to look at the world.

When young (or even older) children discover something new, it often is something I no longer pay attention to, so I get to rediscover it with them. Suddenly I’m young again, seeing things through their eyes: the wonder, the questions, the sense of “what else is out there that I need to know?”

So when I return to something that is familiar, like Grahame’s “Duck Ditty”, I’m back to thirty years younger with preschool age kids – life was busier then but oh so sweet.

On my blog Hankerings, I’m sharing with children in mind. You and kids in your life might enjoy the pictures and the stories, as I look with fresh eyes at the wonders around me. Check it out when you have a chance.

Dabbling at this and that, head down, tail up, a-dabbling free!

An Ordinary Life

No doubt she’s disappointed.

Such a disgrace I turned out to be.

Not a policy-maker
Or tech-savvy entrepreneur.
Nothing of note.

I gave birth three times
and sent three
tall, kind people 
into the world

I offered words of consolation
I planted sunflowers
I listened

Elected official?
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist?
Cutting-edge thought-leader?
MD, PhD, CEO?
Oscar, Emmy, Tony? 
Nobel? 
Anything?

I closed my mother’s eyes
when she died
and again, my father’s

I made no fortune
no headlines
nothing went viral

I sang and danced
for no one

I remembered
I noticed
I breathed

Just an ordinary life
filled with extraordinary love.

How disappointing.
~Mary Poindexter McLaughlin “Alma Mater”

Do not ask your children
to strive for extraordinary lives.

Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is a way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples, and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.
~William Martin from The Parent’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents

Parents can hold expectations of success for their children
that reflect their own deficiencies or failures.
After all, we want the world to be a better place for them than for us.

Yet no academic degree, no bank account, no notoriety or award
can match living an ordinary life filled with extraordinary love.

I did disappoint my parents despite checking off all the boxes they hoped I would achieve in my younger years, because in retrospect, I disappointed myself.

I tended to cling to old grievances and resentments, withholding myself emotionally from them. I could have been more compassionate in their failing years, more available even though physically present. That is something I cannot undo except to pray now for forgiveness for my own deficiencies and failures.

Giving birth to three tall kind people who we have sent into the world, I hope for them what I wish I had understood when I was sent into the world by my parents: living an ordinary life of extraordinary love is more important than anything else they set out to do.

I rejoice as I see them foster such love with their spouses and their children and their communities: remembering, noticing and breathing life into each new day.

Seeing that, I can let go of my own disgrace and disappointment in myself.



A Day Bathed in Sunlight


May your love be firm,
and may your dream of life together
be a river between two shores—
by day bathed in sunlight, and by night
illuminated from within. May the heron
carry news of you to the heavens, and the salmon bring
the sea’s blue grace. May your twin thoughts
spiral upward like leafy vines,
like fiddle strings in the wind,
and be as noble as the Douglas fir.
May you never find yourselves back to back
without love pulling you around
into each other’s arms.
~James Bertolino “Wedding Toast” from Ravenous Bliss

photo by Karen Mullen
photo by Karen Mullen

It was a late June day predicted to be bathed in sunlight with a few clouds, and it ended up a day bathed solely in God’s own light, with cloudy skies, scant sun and a few showers, some from the sky and some from the eyes who witnessed your promised covenant to one another.

May you journey together on a road that reaches to infinity, with no bridges out, or deep ditches to fall into, or trees fallen, barring the path. There may be rough patches, and a fair amount of mud along the way, but always keep the horizon in focus.

May you find each other’s arms when you need them and give yourselves in service to the world when you are able.

And may you always remember your beginnings, next to the noble Douglas fir on a hill, where God in heaven smiled His Light down upon you through teary clouds.

photo by Karen Mullen
photo by Karen Mullen

Just As I Left It

The cat calls for her dinner.
On the porch I bend and pour
brown soy stars into her bowl,
stroke her dark fur.
It’s not quite night.
Pinpricks of light in the eastern sky.
Above my neighbor’s roof, a transparent
moon, a pink rag of cloud.
Inside my house are those who love me.
My daughter dusts biscuit dough.
And there’s a man who will lift my hair
in his hands, brush it
until it throws sparks.
Everything is just as I’ve left it.
Dinner simmers on the stove.
Glass bowls wait to be filled
with gold broth. Sprigs of parsley
on the cutting board.
I want to smell this rich soup, the air
around me going dark, as stars press
their simple shapes into the sky.
I want to stay on the back porch
while the world tilts
toward sleep, until what I love
misses me, and calls me in.
~Dorianne Laux “On the Back Porch” from Awake

If just for a moment,
when the world feels like it is tilting so far
I just might fall off,
there is a need to pause
to look at where I’ve been
and get my feet back under me.

The porch is a good place to start:
a bridge to what exists beyond
without completely leaving the safety of inside.

I am outside looking square at uncertainty
and still hear and smell and taste
the love that dwells just inside these walls.

What do any of us want more
than to be missed if we were to step away
or be taken from this life?

Our voice, our words, our heart, our touch
never to be replaced,
its absence a hole impossible to fill?

When we are called back inside to the Love
that made us who we are,
may we leave behind the outside world
more beautiful because we were part of it.

Stained Glass Windows

Because my parents had denied
me comic books as sordid and
salacious, I would sneak a look
at those of friends, the bold and bright
slick covers, pages rough as news
and inked in pinks and greens and blues
as cowboys shouted in balloons
and Indian yells were printed on
the clouds. I borrowed books and hid
them in the crib and under shoes
and under bed. The glories of
those hyperbolic zaps and screams
were my illuminated texts,
the chapbook prophets of forbidden
and secret art, the narratives
of quest and conquest in the West,
of Superman and Lash Larue.
The print and pictures cruder than
the catalog were sweeter than
the cake at Bible School. I crouched
in almost dark and swilled the words
that soared in their balloons and bulbs
of grainy breath into my pulse,
into the stratosphere of my
imagination, reaching Mach
and orbit speed, escape velocity
just at the edge of Sputnik’s age,
in stained glass windows of the page.
~Robert Morgan “Funny Books” from The Strange Attractor: New and Selected Poems

I learned to read at age four by spending hours poring over the stained glass panels of innumerable 10 cent comic books. One was sent weekly to us kids by our grandfather who only saw us twice a year so we took turns reading that comic over and over until we had the pictures and the content of the dialogue balloons completely memorized before the next one arrived.

My personal favorites were Superman and Archie and Little Lulu but I didn’t discriminate – I’d read anything with colorful pictures and thought bubbles, which probably explains my persisting penchant for Life magazines and National Geographics.

It also explains this blog being 2/3 photos and 1/3 text. I need pictures to get me through most reading material. Medical school was a breeze thanks to so many pictures in the text books. A good thing I’m not an attorney – no pictures in those texts.

I eventually graduated in my cynical pre-teen years to Mad Magazine and (when my parents weren’t paying attention — Cracked) and finally gave up comics altogether by high school.

So whatever happened to a collection of 762 comic books that had accumulated over years of Grandpa’s mailings, as well as my own purchases, spending my hard-earned allowance on comics throughout the 60’s?

As an industrious (and bored) nine year old in the summer of 1964, I decided to open a neighborhood comic book library for kids who wanted to borrow them so I catalogued each and every one on notebook paper and then created a card system taped into each one inside, just like at the real library. If a local kid borrowed a comic, I kept the card showing the date it was borrowed and when it was “due” back and who the borrower was. I don’t remember having many library visitors, as we lived in a rural part of the community, but I did have few friends who would take home several comics (a limit of 3!) and return them the following week.

Eventually the comics were put to rest in a trunk that was stored in our barn and forgotten until my mother had to sell the farm and get everything moved out after my parents’ divorce. My brother and I both thought the other sibling had managed to grab the comic collection but when we talked about it years later, realized that neither of us had possession of them. This became a bit of an issue when we realized that well-cared-for vintage comic books were selling for significant prices in today’s market and we estimated that our collection may have been worth a few thousand dollars.

But oh well.

I hope they ended up in someone’s worthy hands, complete with their kid-made library cards taped to the inside and very well-thumbed pages.

The irony is that to this day, I can’t look at stained glass windows in church without wondering about the silent thought balloons rising above the heads of the people around me. I suspect they would make a great story.

A Wedding Hymn

Thou God, whose high, eternal Love
Is the only blue sky of our life,
Clear all the Heaven that bends above
The life-road of this man and wife.
May these two lives be but one note
In the world’s strange-sounding harmony,
Whose sacred music e’er shall float
Through every discord up to Thee.
As when from separate stars two beams
Unite to form one tender ray:
As when two sweet but shadowy dreams
Explain each other in the day:
So may these two dear hearts one light
Emit, and each interpret each.
Let an angel come and dwell tonight
In this dear double-heart, and teach.
~Sidney Lanier “Wedding Hymn”

Today we will have a wedding (much much smaller than planned and socially distanced) on the hill on our farm. Lea and Brian had hoped for a different celebration of their marriage but 2020 has proven to challenge all expectations.

So instead, after a rainy rehearsal last night, we hope for a bit of sun today and warm hearts witnessing the union of these two precious people.

Our children and their weddings remind us of our own, of the covenant we made with one another and how God has blessed us over the years with the gift of Nate and now Tomomi, Ben and now Hilary and Lea and now Brian.

God — the blue sky in our lives.

From Cut and From Tumble…

God keep my jewel this day from danger;
From tinker and pooka and bad-hearted stranger.
From harm of the water, from hurt of the fire.
From the horns of the cows going home to the byre.
From the sight of the fairies that maybe might change her.
From teasing the ass when he’s tied to the manger.
From stones that would bruise her, from thorns of the briar.
From evil red berries that wake her desire.
From hunting the gander and vexing the goat.
From the depths o’ sea water by Danny’s old boat.
From cut and from tumble, from sickness and weeping;
May God have my jewel this day in his keeping.
~Winifred Lett (1882-1973) Prayer for a Child

This prayer has hung in our home for almost three decades, purchased when I was pregnant with our first child.  When I first saw it with its drawing of the praying mother watching her toddler leave the safety of the home to explore the wide world, I knew it addressed most of my worries as a new mother, in language that helped me smile at my often irrational fears.  I would glance at it dozens of time a day, and it would remind me of God’s care for our children through every scary thing, real or imagined.

And I continue to pray for our grown children, their spouses, and now for three precious grandchildren who live far from us. I do this because I can’t help myself but do it, and because I’m helpless without the care and compassion of our sovereign God.

Right now, this week, I pray for all children who are growing up in an increasingly divisive and conflicted world, who cannot understand why skin color should make a difference to one’s hopes and dreams and freedom to walk anywhere without feeling threatened.

May I be changed in my prayers.
May we all be changed, in a twinkling of an eye.

I pray because I can’t help myself.
I pray because I’m helpless.
I pray because the need flows out of me all the time

— waking and sleeping.
It doesn’t change God — it changes me.

~C.S. Lewis

If You Were Here

How I loved those spiky suns,
rooted stubborn as childhood

in the grass, tough as the farmer’s
big-headed children—the mats
of yellow hair, the bowl-cut fringe.
How sturdy they were and how
slowly they turned themselves
into galaxies, domes of ghost stars
barely visible by day, pale
cerebrums clinging to life
on tough green stems.   Like you.
Like you, in the end.   If you were here,
I’d pluck this trembling globe to show
how beautiful a thing can be
a breath will tear away.
~Jean Nordhaus “A Dandelion for My Mother”

Vigil at my mother’s bedside
(for Elna)

Lying still, your mouth gapes open as
I wonder if you breathe your last.
Your hair a white cloud
Your skin baby soft
No washing, digging, planting gardens
Or raising children
Anymore.

Where do your dreams take you?
At times you wake in your childhood home of
Rolling wheat fields, boundless days of freedom.
Other naps take you to your student and teaching days
Grammar and drama, speech and essays.
Yesterday you were a young mother again
Juggling babies, farm and your wistful dreams.

Today you looked about your empty nest
Disguised as hospital bed,
Wondering aloud about
Children grown, flown.
You still control through worry
and tell me:
Travel safely
Get a good night’s sleep
Take time to eat
Call me when you get there

I dress you as you dressed me
I clean you as you cleaned me
I love you as you loved me
You try my patience as I tried yours.
I wonder if I have the strength to
Mother my mother
For as long as she needs.

When I tell you the truth
Your brow furrows as it used to do
When I disappointed you~
This cannot be
A bed in a room in a sterile place
Waiting for death
Waiting for the next breath
Waiting for heaven
Waiting

And I tell you:
Travel safely
Eat, please eat
Sleep well
Call me when you get there.