Never an End to What’s Left Behind

“There’s never an end to dust
and dusting,” my aunt would say
as her rag, like a thunderhead,
scudded across the yellow oak
of her little house. There she lived
seventy years with a ball
of compulsion closed in her fist,
and an elbow that creaked and popped
like a branch in a storm. Now dust
is her hands and dust her heart.
There’s never an end to it.
~Ted Kooser “Carrie” from Flying at Night: Poems 1965-1985

My Great Aunt Marion was considered odd, no question about it.  She usually dressed in somber woolens, smelling faintly of mothballs and incense. Her straight gray hair was bobbed with bangs,  unfashionable for the wavy permanents of the fifties and the beehives of the sixties.  Aunt Marion was a second grade teacher all her life, never marrying,  and she lived for over 50 years in a spotless tiny apartment until the day she died in 1975.    She bequeathed what little she had to the church she had faithfully attended a few blocks away and was buried in the family plot on a windswept hill overlooking Puget Sound.

I was overseas when she died, and to my knowledge, none of the extended family attended her funeral.  In her retirement years she had become reclusive and remote.  It was clear visitors weren’t welcome so visits to her became rare.  In an effort to counteract that, I have annually visited her gravesite for the past 30+ years, paying homage to this aunt who remained an enigma in life and became even more mysterious in death.

She grew up in the early 20th century in an impoverished German immigrant family who relocated from Wisconsin to the northwest. Her father was gone most of the year running steamboats up the Yukon, leaving her mother to make do as a some time school teacher and full time mother. Her older brother dropped schooling early for the rough and ready life of the local logging camps but Marion finished teachers’ college at the Western Washington Normal School on the hill in Bellingham. She began her life’s work teaching 2nd grade a few miles away at Geneva Elementary School, and became the primary caretaker in her mother’s declining years.

Her shock over her brother’s marriage to a much younger teenage girl in 1917 created foment within an already fractious family that persisted down through the generations.  As the offspring of that union, my father tried to prove his worth to his judgmental aunt.  She was had a spiky and thorny personality, stern and unforgiving, but politely tolerated his existence though would never acknowledge his mother.  Family gatherings weren’t possible due to the ongoing bitter conflict between the two strong-willed ladies.

Though Marion was childless, her heart belonged to her many students as well as a number of children she sponsored through relief organizations in developing countries around the world.  Her most visible  joy came from her annual summer trip to one of those exotic countries to meet first hand the child she was sponsoring.  It seemed to fuel her until the next trip could be planned.  She visited Asia and India numerous times, as well as Central and South America.  It  provided the purpose that was missing in the daily routine of her life at home.

I moved to my great aunt’s community over three decades ago, 10 years after she had died.  I’d occasionally think of her as I drove past her old apartment building or the Methodist church she attended.  Several years ago, I noticed a new wing on the old church, modern, spacious and airy.  I commented on it to a co-worker who I knew attended that church.

He said the old church building had undergone significant remodeling over the years to update the wiring and plumbing, to create a more welcome sanctuary for worship and most recently to add a new educational wing for Sunday School and after school programs during the weekdays. As one of the council members in the church’s leadership, he commented that he was fortunate to attend a church equipped with financial resources to provide programs such as this in a struggling neighborhood that had more than its share of latch-key kids and single parents barely making do.   He mentioned an endowment from a bequest given over 40 years ago by a spinster schoolteacher in her will.  This lady had attended the church faithfully for years, and was somewhat legendary for her silent weekly presence in the same pew and that she rarely spoke to others in the church.  She arrived, sat in the same spot, and left right after the service, barely interacting.  Upon her death, she left her entire estate to the church, well over $1 million in addition to the deed to an oil well in Texas which has continued to flow and prosper over the past several decades.  The new wing was dedicated to her memory as it represented her expressed desire for her neighborhood.

I asked if her name was Marion and he stared at me baffled.  Yes, I knew her, I said.  Yes, she was a remarkable woman.  Yes, how proud she would be to see her legacy – what she had worked so hard for and then left behind — come to fruition.

There were times as I was growing up I wondered if my Great Aunt Marion had a secret lover somewhere, or if she led a double life as her life at home seemed so lonely and painful.  I know now that she did have a secret life.  She loved the children she had made her own and she lived plainly and simply in order to provide for others who had little.  Her extended family is better off having never inherited that money or an oil well.  It could have torn an already conflicted family apart and Marion knew, estranged from her only blood relatives,  her money would hurt us more than it would help.

Her full story has died with her.  Even so, I mourn her anew, marveling at what became of the dust of her, the legacy she chose to leave. 

Of this, I am deeply proud.

In Solitudes of Peace

There seemed a smell of autumn in the air
At the bleak end of night; he shivered there
In a dank, musty dug-out where he lay,
Legs wrapped in sand-bags,—lumps of chalk and clay
Spattering his face. Dry-mouthed, he thought, “To-day
We start the damned attack; and, Lord knows why,
Zero’s at nine; how bloody if I’m done in
Under the freedom of that morning sky!”
And then he coughed and dozed, cursing the din
.

Was it the ghost of autumn in that smell
Of underground, or God’s blank heart grown kind,
That sent a happy dream to him in hell?—
Where men are crushed like clods, and crawl to find
Some crater for their wretchedness; who lie
In outcast immolation, doomed to die
Far from clean things or any hope of cheer,
Cowed anger in their eyes, till darkness brims
And roars into their heads, and they can hear
Old childish talk, and tags of foolish hymns.

He sniffs the chilly air; (his dreaming starts).
He’s riding in a dusty Sussex lane
In quiet September; slowly night departs;
And he’s a living soul, absolved from pain.
Beyond the brambled fences where he goes
Are glimmering fields with harvest piled in sheaves,
And tree-tops dark against the stars grown pale;
Then, clear and shrill, a distant farm-cock crows;
And there’s a wall of mist along the vale
Where willows shake their watery-sounding leaves.
He gazes on it all, and scarce believes
That earth is telling its old peaceful tale;
He thanks the blessed world that he was born….
Then, far away, a lonely note of the horn.

They’re drawing the Big Wood! Unlatch the gate,
And set Golumpus going on the grass:
He knows the corner where it’s best to wait
And hear the crashing woodland chorus pass;
The corner where old foxes make their track
To the Long Spinney; that’s the place to be.
The bracken shakes below an ivied tree,
And then a cub looks out; and “Tally-o-back!”
He bawls, and swings his thong with volleying crack,—
All the clean thrill of autumn in his blood,
And hunting surging through him like a flood
In joyous welcome from the untroubled past;
While the war drifts away, forgotten at last.

Now a red, sleepy sun above the rim
Of twilight stares along the quiet weald,
And the kind, simple country shines revealed
In solitudes of peace, no longer dim.
The old horse lifts his face and thanks the light,
Then stretches down his head to crop the green.
All things that he has loved are in his sight;
The places where his happiness has been
Are in his eyes, his heart, and they are good.

* * * *  
Hark! there’s the horn: they’re drawing the Big Wood.
~Siegfried Sassoon “Break of Day”
(written about his memories as a WWI soldier)

When we are at war,
whether deep in the foxhole
hiding from the enemy,
or deeper yet in a hole of our own making,
trying to conceal our sins.

Amidst that mire and mud,
we dream of better days
and an untroubled past,
when the hunter and hunted was merely a game,
not life and death.

May we know the means of peace was brought to earth.

May we surface in mutual surrender,
begging for reprieve, longing for redemption.
May the solitudes of peace overwhelm
those who are angry and conflicted.
May we lift our faces up
and thank the Light.

We Are Forever Changed

there are no words there is no song
is there a balm that can heal these wounds that will last a lifetime long
and when the stars have burned to dust
hand in hand we still will stand because we must

in one single hour in one single day
we were changed forever something taken away
and there is no fire that can melt this heavy stone
that can bring back the voices and the spirits of our own

all the brothers, sisters and lovers all the friends that are gone
all the chairs that will be empty in the lives that will go on
can we ever forgive though we never will forget
can we believe in the milk of human goodness yet

we were forged in freedom we were born in liberty
we came here to stop the twisted arrows cast by tyranny
and we won’t bow down we are strong of heart
we are a chain together that won’t be pulled apart
~Kitty Donohoe “There are no words”
written on 9/1/11

As a grade school child in November 1963, I learned the import of the U.S. flag being lowered to half mast in response to the shocking and violent death of our President. The lowering of the flag was so rare when I was growing up, it had dramatic effect on all who passed by — something very sad had happened to our country, warranting our unified silence and our stillness.

Since 9/11/01, our flag has spent significant time at half mast, so much so that I’m befuddled instead of contemplative, puzzling over what the latest loss might be as there are so many, sometimes all happening in the same time frame.  We no longer are silenced by this gesture of honor and respect and we certainly are not stilled, personally and corporately instigating and suffering the same mistakes against humanity over and over again.

There remains so much more sadness to be borne after that tragic day 18 years ago – such abundance of grief that our world has become overwhelmed and stricken and it seems we’ve lost all imagination for the “milk of human goodness.” Instead it seems we have become more divisive, pulling ourselves apart.

We must return, as people of faith, to that stillness to which we are called on a day such as today.  We must be still; we must be silent. We must let the bells toll and the names be read out. We must grieve the losses of this turning world and pray for release from the suffering we cause and we endure.  Only in the asking, only in the kneeling down and pleading, are we surrounded by grace.   A flag half lowered may have lost its power to punch our gut, but we are illuminated by the Light,  forged in freedom, born in liberty.

We must stop allowing our chain links from being pulled apart.

Breathing the Spirit of the Seasons

photo of Grandma Emma by Sara Larsen

With my arms raised in a vee,
I gather the heavens and bring
my hands down slow together,
press palms and bow my head.

I try to forget the suffering,
the wars, the ravage of land
that threatens songbirds,
butterflies, and pollinators.

The ghosts of their wings flutter
past my closed eyes as I breathe
the spirit of seasons, the stirrings
in soil, trees moving with sap.

With my third eye, I conjure
the red fox, its healthy tail, recount
the good of this world, the farmer
tending her tomatoes, the beans

dazzled green al dente in butter,
salt and pepper, cows munching
on grass. The orb of sun-gold
from which all bounty flows.
~Twyla M. Hansen “Trying to Pray” from
 Rock. Tree. Bird

There is much to pray about.
The list is endless and the need overwhelming.

Where even to begin?

It is for good reason we are advised by Paul to “pray without ceasing” (the word in Greek is adialeiptos or “uninterruptedly”) in 1 Thessalonians 5:17.

It is not only when we audibly and in form,
address our petitions to the Deity that we pray.
We pray without ceasing.
Every secret wish is a prayer.
Every house is a church;
the corner of every street is a closet of devotion.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson in his sermon: Pray Without Ceasing

A farmer may have an addendum:
every barn is a church,
every moment kneeling and weeding the soil an act of devotion,
every moment of care-taking God’s creation an act of sacramental obedience.
Praying without ceasing in the course of one’s day.

Yet even before we clasp our hands together,
we are told to “Rejoice always.”
-Rejoice before complaining.
-Rejoice before requesting.
-Rejoice before losing heart.

Let me be breathing in the spirit of the seasons, overwhelmed by joy, before I talk with God. He knows which tears are which.

For Every Hurt

oakleafhydrangeabug
 
 
Gardens are also good places
to sulk. You pass beds of
spiky voodoo lilies   
and trip over the roots   
of a sweet gum tree,   
in search of medieval   
plants whose leaves,   
when they drop off   
turn into birds
if they fall on land,
and colored carp if they   
plop into water.
 
Suddenly the archetypal   
human desire for peace   
with every other species   
wells up in you. The lion
and the lamb cuddling up. 
The snake and the snail, kissing.
Even the prick of the thistle,   
queen of the weeds, revives   
your secret belief
in perpetual spring,
your faith that for every hurt   
there is a leaf to cure it.
~Amy Gerstler  from “In Perpetual Spring

Try as we might to find common ground with those so unlike ourselves, it is the differences we focus on despite our efforts to understand and befriend. Whether it is cranky politicians sparring in the headlines, or the perpetual struggle between weak and strong, we miss seeing Creation’s intended balance all around us.

We can dwell compatibly, lion and lamb, without one becoming a meal for the other. Indeed, prey transforms the predator.

Even the barbed and bloody thistle releases its seeds in the cushion of thistledown, drifting gently where the wind will take it next, at once forgiven for the scars it inflicted.

May I strive to be comforting rather than prickly, healing rather than inflicting, wherever I may land.

On Thin Ice

Walking in February
A warm day after a long freeze
On an old logging road
Below Sumas Mountain
Cut a walking stick of alder,
Looked down through clouds
On wet fields of the Nooksack—
And stepped on the ice
Of a frozen pool across the road.
It creaked
The white air under
Sprang away, long cracks
Shot out in the black,
My cleated mountain boots
Slipped on the hard slick
—like thin ice—the sudden
Feel of an old phrase made real—
Instant of frozen leaf,
Icewater, and staff in hand.
“Like walking on thin ice—”
I yelled back to a friend,
It broke and I dropped
Eight inches in
~Gary Snyder “Thin Ice”

We are surrounded by divisive opinions about all manner of things — how we should live, who is privileged and who is marginalized, who we should believe, who we cannot possibly believe — these battles of words hog headlines, scroll the bottom of our screens, blare from classrooms, city squares, radios and podcasts.

Continual conflict, literally a splintering crack creaking with our weight, occupies too much of the world’s scarce resources, while compassionate people stand stranded on the frozen lake of political emotions.

The trouble with such overheating in the middle of winter is that we all end up walking on too-thin ice: both those who are far too overconfident in expressing their own righteous views and opinions about how much more they know than others, and those of us who passively listen and judge between the blowhards.

We’ll all end up breaking through the ice, thoroughly doused by the chilly waters below.

Lord, have mercy on us,
show us your Light,
blend the division between shadow and dawn,
help us recognize the cracks creaking beneath our feet,
compelling us to fall to our knees,
before you
and you alone.

The Bitter Cold

The cold has the philosophical value of reminding men that the universe does not love us…cold is our ancient companion. To return back indoors after exposure to the bitter, inimical, implacable cold is to experience gratitude for the shelters of civilization, for the islands of warmth that life creates.
~John Updike from an essay on the cold of winter in
Winter: A Spiritual Biography of the Season

 

We’re in the midst of a string of sub-freezing temperature nights and days with crystal clear skies while a nor’easter sends the windchill plummeting. 

Even though it is often called the “Arctic Express” it is not nearly the cold of the midwest plains or the Alaskan frontier.  This is civilized, “kill the bugs and the allergens” cold that helps balance out the ecosystem as well as our internal thermostats.  It is just not seemly to live at 70 degrees year round, toasted by the stove in the winter, soothed by conditioned air in the summer.

The cold that descends from the Arctic can blast through the strongest Carhartt clothing, sneak through drafty doors and windows, pull down power lines and freeze pipes not left dripping.  It leaves no one untouched and unbitten with universal freezer burn.

A bitter cold snap ensures even independent fair-weather individualists must become companionable when the going gets rugged, mandating shelter with others for survival.  It can even mean forced companionship with those we ordinarily avoid, with whom we have little in common, with whom we disagree and even quarrel, with whom sharing a hug or snuggling for warmth would be unimaginable.

Our nation is in such a cold snap today, terribly and bitterly divided.  If we all together don’t come in out of the deep freeze, we each will perish alone.  

It is time to be thankful we have each other, such as we are.  At least we  generate heat, even if we can’t seem to lighten up.