Everyone in the Wrong Places

On a table in the living room
there is a gray ceramic bowl that catches
the light each afternoon, contains it.
This is the room we turned into
the room of her dying, the hospital bed
in the center, the medical equipment
against the walls like personnel.
In Maine, once, I rented a house hundreds
of years old. One room had been
the birthing room, I was told, and I sat
in that room writing towards the bright
new world I am always trying
to write into. And while I could stop
there, with those two recognitions
of endings and beginnings, I’m thinking

of yesterday’s afternoon of errands.
My father and mother were in the backseat,
my sister in the passenger seat,
and I driving. It was like decades ago
but everyone in the wrong places,
as though time was simply about
different arrangements of proximity.
Sometimes someone is in front of you.
Or they are beside. At other times
they are behind you, or just elsewhere,
inconsolably, as though time was
about how well or badly you attended
to the bodies around you. First, we went
to the bakery. Then the hardware.
The pharmacy, the grocery. Then the bank.

~Rick Barot “Of Errands”

For a time, my husband and I were the middle of the proverbial family sandwich – the meat and cheese with condiments while our aging parents were one slice of bread and our young children the other slice. It was such a full time of always being needed by someone somewhere somehow in some way that I barely can recall details of what those years were like.

Mothers with daughters sometimes note the irony of being in the throes of menopause while their pre-teen is adjusting to menarche – we pass on the fertility torch.

As I sort through boxes that have been stored away for over a decade from my mother and mother-in-law’s belongings to find things to help our son’s family get settled in their house, I realize that time could be measured in bowls and vases and casserole baking dishes. They are passed to the next generation for another lifetime of use. We start out being fed, then we become the provider, and wind up being fed ourselves in the end.

I want to forestall that time of becoming dependent again as long as possible. For now, I want to hold my grandchildren’s hands as I try to keep them safe in an unpredictable world. Someday, I may need them to help hold my hand once I lack the strength to walk unaided.

Turn turn turn – there is a season. Turn around and everyone has changed places, blessed to still walk alongside one another for as long as possible.

Great Grandma Emma, granddaughter Andrea, great-grandson Zealand, photo by Andrea Nipges

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…
Ecclesiastes 3:1

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The Forgiveness of Sleep

The children have gone to bed.
We are so tired we could fold ourselves neatly
behind our eyes and sleep mid-word, sleep standing
warm among the creatures in the barn, lean together
and sleep, forgetting each other completely in the velvet,
the forgiveness of sleep.

Then the one small cry:
one strike of the match-head of sound:
one child’s voice:
and the hundred names of love are lit
as we rise and walk down the hall.

One hundred nights we wake like this,
wake out of our nowhere
to kneel by small beds in darkness.
One hundred flowers open in our hands,
a name for love written in each one.
~Annie Lighthart, from Iron String

I thought I had forgotten how to wake to the sound of a child’s voice in the night. I thought I wouldn’t remember how to gently open their bedroom door, entering their darkness from my own darkness, discerning what was distressing them, sensing how to soothe them back to slumber, wondering if I might sing or pray the words they needed to hear, bringing a blossoming peace and stillness to their night.

And then our son’s family arrived two months ago from thousands of miles away, to stay until they could settle in their own place, and I remembered my nights were never meant to be mine alone. As a child, I had so many night-wakenings that I’m sure my mother despaired that I would ever sleep through the night. She would come when I called, sitting beside my bed, rubbing my back until I forgot what woke me in the first place. She was patient and caring despite her own weariness, sleep problems and worriedness. She loved me and forgave me for needing her presence in the night, so her nights were never her own.

I too responded with compassion when my own children called out in the night. I woke regularly to phone calls from hospitals and patients during forty years of medical practice and listened and answered questions with grace and understanding. And now, for a time, I’m on call again, remembering the sweetness of being loved when the dark fears of the night need the light and promise of a new day coming, if only just a few hours away.

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A Calliope Cadence

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”

Under its canopy, in the shade it casts,
turns a world with painted horses,
all from a land that lingers a while
before it disappears.
Some, it’s true, are harnessed to a wagon,
but all have valor in their eyes.
A fierce red lion leaps among them,
and here comes ’round a snow-white elephant.

Even a stag appears, straight from the forest,
except for the saddle he wears, and,
buckled on it, a small boy in blue.

And a boy in white rides the lion,
gripping it with small clenched hands,
while the lion flashes teeth and tongue.

And here comes ’round a snow-white elephant.

And riding past on charging horses come girls,
bright-eyed, almost too old now for this children’s play.
With the horses rising under them,
they are looking up and off to what awaits.
~Rainer Maria Rilke from “Jardin de Luxembourg”

You don’t really understand human nature unless you know why a child on a merry-go-round will wave at his parents every time around – and why his parents will always wave back.
~William D. Tammeus

As a child, I could not resist a ride on a carousel, waving each time I came round.  Decades later, I can not resist standing and watching a carousel, waving back at whoever waves at me.

It is a world that turns and turns without going anywhere, except in the imaginations of the riders who fly higher, leap farther, jump huge gaps, race fastest. For them, it becomes a world that goes anywhere and everywhere. 

The swirl of surroundings and magic of music raises each child up, up, speeding faster and faster to catch whatever may await them. Then the world slows, settling and settling until each waving child becomes the stationary waving adult who stands their ground faithfully waiting — remembering how going round and round without going anywhere was the most wonderful feeling in the ever turning world.

Yesterday a child came out to wonder
Caught a dragonfly inside a jar
Fearful when the sky was full of thunder
And tearful at the falling of a star

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

Then the child moved ten times round the seasons
Skated over ten clear frozen streams
Words like, when you’re older, must appease him
And promises of someday make his dreams

Sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now
Cartwheels turn to car wheels thru the town
And they tell him, Take your time, it won’t be long now
Till you drag your feet just to slow the circles down

So the years spin by and now the boy is twenty
Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true
There’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty
Before the last revolving year is through
~Joni Mitchell “The Circle Game”

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With All My Heart

Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup.
Don’t patch anything. Don’t mend. Buy safety pins.
Don’t even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don’t keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll’s tiny shoes in pairs, don’t worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic—decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don’t even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don’t sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we’re all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don’t answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in through the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don’t read it, don’t read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity

~Louise Erdrich “Advice to Myself”

I am a messy person, coming from a long line of messy people. My paternal grandmother never had a clear kitchen counter, or a dining room table without piles of books and papers, spilling over with knickknacks and half-completed craft projects everywhere. I loved the chaos of her house since the messes left behind by her grandchildren weren’t as noticeable. I always felt at home, as if I was not being constantly monitored as a potential mess about to happen.

During this past (very hot) week, in our own home some sixty years later, we have grown from two residents to twelve with a lovely reunion of our children and grandchildren after four years of living far-flung and unable to gather. With four children under six years of age together, our house became even more of a whirlwind than it ordinarily is. I took no photos to demonstrate this, but trust me, the floor was covered with all manner of organic and inorganic matter most of the time. This was bliss, as long as I didn’t step on something sharp or suspiciously slimy in my bare feet.

The biggest surprise was a very early morning, about 4:30 AM, when the house was still dark and quiet except for our ten month old grandson who had not adapted yet to our time zone, so was up early for his breakfast. As I tiptoed quietly into my <very messy chaotic> kitchen to retrieve something, I noticed a good sized dust bunny on the linoleum floor and bent down to pick it up to toss in the trash can. To my surprise, it leaped away from my fingers!

It kept jumping away and when my eyes finally focused in the early morning light, I realized it wasn’t an escaping dust bunny, but a tree frog covered in dust fuzz from my less than tidy floor. It must have come in the house from the perpetually open front door and hidden under a piece of furniture, being transformed into a furry froggy Frankenstein.

I caught it and carried it outside into the morning dawn, setting it free into the chaos of the world outside, rather than coping inside with my insufficient housekeeping. No, I didn’t think to get a photo. Oh, well. Some things you just have to take on faith.

After all, my heart has been leaping and rejoicing all week to have our family under one roof for a brief few days and whether the house was clean was simply a secondary concern. It actually is not a concern at all.

You can’t clean out a mama’s heart; it carries so much over the years that may need sweeping and scrubbing, but this was not the week to worry about it. My worth is not in what I own or how pristine I keep things, but in the depth of my commitment to those who I am given the privilege to know and love.

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Freedom: Being Easy in the Harness

photo by Joel DeWaard
Photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard

I find my greatest freedom on the farm.
I can be a bad farmer or a lazy farmer and it’s my own business.
What is my definition of freedom?
It’s being easy in your harness.

~Robert Frost in 1954, at a news conference on the eve of his 80th birthday

photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard

Little soul,
you and I will become
the memory
of a memory of a memory.
A horse
released of the traces
forgets the weight of the wagon.
~Jane Hirshfield “Harness”

photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard

The past was faded like a dream; 
There come the jingling of a team, 
A ploughman’s voice, a clink of chain, 
Slow hoofs, and harness under strain. 
Up the slow slope a team came bowing

O wet red swathe of earth laid bare,
O truth, O strength, O gleaming share,
O patient eyes that watch the goal,
O ploughman of the sinner’s soul.
O Jesus, drive the coulter deep
To plough my living man from sleep…


That Christ was standing there with me, 
That Christ had taught me what to be, 
That I should plough, and as I ploughed 
My Saviour Christ would sing aloud, 
And as I drove the clods apart 
Christ would be ploughing in my heart, 
Through rest-harrow and bitter roots, 
Through all my bad life’s rotten fruits.

Lo, all my heart’s field red and torn,
And Thou wilt bring the young green corn,
And when the field is fresh and fair
Thy blessed feet shall glitter there,
And we will walk the weeded field,
And tell the golden harvest’s yield,
The corn that makes the holy bread
By which the soul of man is fed,
The holy bread, the food unpriced,
Thy everlasting mercy, Christ.
~John Masefield from The Everlasting Mercy

photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard

We historically have shouldered much burden
in our pursuit of happiness and freedom;
it’s worth every ounce of sweat,
every sore muscle,
every drop of blood,
every tear.

We forget the weight of the plow
as it turns over the earth
where someday we will rest as dust.

The soil of our hearts is well-tilled,
yielding to the plowshare
digging deep with the pull of the harness.
The furrow straight and narrow.

Although we are tread upon
yet do we bloom;
though we are turned upside down
yet we produce bread.

Plowing brings freshness to the surface,
a new face upturned to the cleansing dew,
knots of worms making our simple dust fertile.

Plow deep our hearts this day
of celebrating freedom in You, Dear Lord.
Let us remember to worship You, and not ourselves.

May we plow, sow, grow,
gather and harvest what is needed
to feed your vast and hungry children
everywhere.

photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard

Thank you once again to Joel DeWaard, local farmer, craftsman and photographer, who graciously shares his photos of the Annual International Lynden (Washington) Plowing Match

Whatcha gonna do when the plowin’s done?
Workin’ all day in the heat of the sun
The game’s been caught; the bread’s been won
Whatcha gonna do when the plowin’s done?

What I’m gonna do when the plowin’s done
Is take some time just to have some fun
Say the barn-dance just begun
That’s where I’m goin’ when the plowin’s done

Whatcha gonna do when the daylight’s gone
Twilight settles and the shade grows long
The whippoorwill sings his favorite song
Whatcha gonna do when the daylight’s gone?

What I’m gonna do when the daylight’s gone
Is take you to the dance if you’ll come along
The down-home past time can’t go wrong
That’s what I’m doing when the daylight’s gone

Whatcha gonna do when the moonlight’s gone
And dewdrops settle on the farmer’s lawn
I’m gonna stay right here and dance till dawn
That’s what I’m doing when the moonlight’s gone

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Almost But Not Entirely Alone

Each afternoon he took his pipe
and led his goats beyond the pasture
to a neighbor’s field behind his farm—
not exactly his but not exactly not.

As the goats clipped the tall grasses,
he sat in the chair he never failed
to bring. Sometimes he read, most often
not. The vetch climbed the goldenrod,

the dandelions turned from gold
to globe, and every day he went,
thinking to himself how good it was
to be almost but not entirely alone.
~Michelle Y. Burke “A Life” from Animal Purpose

At times, when things seem a little too quiet around here, I remember my past days of working motherhood when the only moments during my day when I was alone was when I went into the bathroom and closed the door. Often that wasn’t even sacrosanct.

During those very busy years, I truly forgot how to be by myself, just existing without outside distractions and others’ input to keep my mind occupied. Now, it is too easy to rely on a phone in one’s pocket to avoid ever being “alone” just sitting with my own thoughts.

So I go out into the field whenever I can – simply to be – almost, but not entirely alone. I won’t forget that I’m never really alone – and that is always forever okay with me.

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They Are No More…


    …mourning and great weeping,
weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.
from Matthew 2:18 and Jeremiah 31:15

Newtown, CT December 2012
There are the fields we’ll walk across
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
There are the fields we’ll walk across.

There are the houses we’ll walk toward
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
There are the houses we’ll walk toward.

There are the faces we once kissed
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
There are the faces we once kissed.

Incredible how we laughed and cried
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
Incredible how we laughed and cried.

Incredible how we’ll meet again
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
Incredible how we’ll meet again.

No small hand will go unheld
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
No small hand will go unheld.

No voice once heard is ever lost
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
No voice once heard is ever lost.

~Dick Allen “Solace”

In mourning for the families of Uvalde, Texas

There is no comfort for these families.
Their arms ache with emptiness,
their childrens’ beds and pillows cold tonight,
dolls and stuffed animals awaiting all night hugs
that will never come again.

There is no earthly consolation;
only mourning and great weeping,
sobbing that wrings dry
every human cell,
leaving only dust behind,
which is our beginning
and our end.

Christ came to us
for times such as this,
born of the dust of woman and
the breath of Spirit.
God bent down to
be cradled in barn dust,
walk on roads of dust,
die and be laid to rest as dust
to conquer such evil as this –
the slaughter and massacre of innocents.

He became dust to be
like us
He began a mere speck in a womb
like us
His heart beat
like ours
breathing each breath
like ours
until a fearful fallen world
took His
and our breath
away.

He shines His Light through
the darkness of tragic deaths
to guide our stumbling uncertain feet.
His tender mercies flow freely
when there is no consolation,
when there is no comfort.

He hears our cries
as He cried too.
He knows our tears
as He wept too.
He knows our mourning
as He mourned too.
He knows our dying
as He died too.

God wept as this happened yesterday.
Evil comes not from God
yet humankind embraces it.
Sin is our ongoing choice,
a decision made from our beginning,
but we can choose to end it now.

Only God can glue together
what evil has shattered.
He asks us to hand Him
the pieces of our broken hearts,
abandon our evil ways
and sin no more.

We will know His peace
when He comes
to bring us home,
our tears finally dried,
our cells no longer just dust,
as we are glued together
by the word and breath and voice
of God forevermore.

the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.
Luke 1: 78-79

The World’s Most Sensitive Cargo

Go north a dozen years
on a road overgrown with vines
to find the days after you were born.
Flowers remembered their colors and trees
were frothy and the hospital was


behind us now, its brick indifference
forgotten by our car mirrors. You were
revealed to me: tiny, delicate,
your head smelling of some other world.
Turn right after the circular room


where I kept my books and right again
past the crib where you did not sleep
and you will find the window where
I held you that morning
when you opened your eyes. They were


blue, tentative, not the deep chocolate
they would later become. You were gazing
into the world: at our walls,
my red cup, my sleepless hair and though
I’m told you could not focus, and you


no longer remember, we were seeing
one another after seasons of darkness.

~Faith Shearin, “Sight” from Orpheus, Turning

A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.

~Naomi Shihab Nye “Shoulders”

Recent headlines reflect a touchy cultural debate about child bearing and rearing in our post-modern society:

who has control over whose body and for what justifiable reasons,

when life begins and when its loss is a death to be mourned
or if intentional, could be considered equivalent to murder,

babies without access to adequate nutrition due to a formula shortage while some shame mothers for not breast-feeding,

who determines what schools can teach at what stage of development, whether vaccines should be mandatory to attend,
and what books children can have access to in the library.

There are controversies about our country not guaranteeing paid parental leave and automatic free day care, along with government subsidized health care, and whether we coddle our kids too much or too little.

Some are convinced we should avoid child-bearing since people are destroying the earth and adding more people will only hasten our demise.

The judgement and harshness of the debate is enough to discourage parenting at all for those who are ambivalent to begin with. For those who long to be parents but still have empty arms, the debate seems heartless and selfish, as they wonder if and when a chance to love their own child will ever come.

Having waited long years ourselves with empty arms, and then were blessed with three of our own, I can say with assurance children are the most sensitive cargo we’ll ever bear and carry and love – there is no future without children cherished above one’s own wants and needs.

After seasons of darkness, we must look each other in the eyes and find each other worthy to exist and do whatever it takes to guarantee it. We must be willing to sacrifice, carrying one another like precious cargo. We were created for no less than this.

Just checking to see if she is real…

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A Refuge in Briars and Brambles

What’s incomplete in me seeks refuge
in blackberry bramble and beech trees,
where creatures live without dogma
and water moves in patterns
more ancient than philosophy.
I stand still, child eavesdropping on her elders.
I don’t speak the language
but my body translates best it can,
wakening skin and gut, summoning
the long kinship we share with everything.
~Laura Grace Weldon, “Common Ground” from  Blackbird

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
~Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things”

Nearly thirty months of pandemic separation and
I long to share our farm with our far-flung grandchildren
who live across the ocean, to watch them discover
the joys and sorrows of this place we inhabit.
I will tell them there is light beyond this darkness,
there is refuge amid the brambles,
there is kinship with what surrounds us,
there is peace amid the chaos,
there is a smile behind the tears,
there is stillness within the noisiness,
there is rescue when all seems hopeless,
there is grace as the old gives way to new.

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Making Us Even

And this, then,
is the vision of that Heaven of which
we have heard, where those who love
each other have forgiven each other,

where, for that, the leaves are green,
the light a music in the air,
and all is unentangled,
and all is undismayed.
~Wendell Berry “To My Mother”

I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.

Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.

And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
~Billy Collins from “The Lanyard”

...I want to thank you
truly for the wry smile you set
on my lips, a smile as mild as your own;
it has saved me pain and grief.
And if now I shed a tear for you,
and all who wait like you and do not know
what they wait for, it does not matter.
O gentle death, do not touch the hands, the heart of the old.
Goodbye, dear one, farewell,

my sweet mother.
~Salvatore Quasimodo from “Letter to My Mother”

Mother love is life and light
beginning in the dark, as a special secret,
until you know without a doubt
you will never be just yourself again,
tethered forever to another.

~this sacrificial love is a haven of abundant grace~

the tangles we make of our lives
unravel, straighten and smooth,
no dismay over mistakes made

I was created within you –
to love my own children fully, fervently,
forever and forever –
as I was loved by you.

Now they, in turn, are known by their love.