Reaching For Air

The fish are drifting calmly in their tank
between the green reeds, lit by a white glow
that passes for the sun. Blindly, the blank
glass that holds them in displays their slow
progress from end to end, familiar rocks
set into the gravel, murmuring rows
of filters, a universe the flying fox
and glass cats, Congo tetras, bristle-nose
pleocostemus all take for granted. Yet
the platys, gold and red, persist in leaping
occasionally, as if they can’t quite let
alone a possibility—of wings,
maybe, once they reach the air? They die
on the rug. We find them there, eyes open in surprise.
~Kim Addonizio “Aquarium,” from The Philosopher’s Club

My plecostamus is dead.  Belly up on the bottom of the tank, no pulsing mouth or breathing gills. He had been official tank custodian.  Almost a foot long, with a face that only a mother could love.  I tried for ten years, I really did.  I just could not love that face.

His spiny armor and rolling eyes unnerved me. For ten long years.  He was a throwback to the dinosaur age, swimming shark-like in our living room, reminding me that mere millennia ago, creatures like him controlled the earth.  And then they were gone.  But the plecostamus remembers those days and controlled his little watery kingdom.

It was a rather pleasant relationship with him at first, when my tank was new and he was an under two inch soft little sucker fish, diligent and unobtrusive.  He alone survived two tanks springing leaks, complete with temporary quarters for a few days in 5 gallon buckets.  He survived winter storms with no electricity, so the water temperature dropped way below a level any sensible South American river fish would tolerate.  Yet he did.  He kept growing.  His fins got sharper and pokier.  He watched many other fish come and go over the years, and when they went, he helped clean up the remains so I was never sure what had happened to the missing party.  Unnerving indeed.

He was an efficient glass cleaner with his sucking lips, so I rarely had to erase the algae, like chalk from a board. When I did reach in, way past my elbow, to clean house underwater, I’d sometimes startle him from his hiding place behind the rocks or the fairy tale castle. He’d sweep by my arm with a wave of his spikey fins scratching my skin, and roll his eyes at me, indignant at the disturbance, and the implication he was not doing his job.

As he aged, I wondered a number of times if he had died, as he lay still on the bottom of the tank, rather than hiding as usual.  I would reach in tentatively with a net and brush his fins and he’d dart out from under my touch.  In his old age weariness, he began leaving algae behind on the glass, and couldn’t keep up with the house cleaning without occasional help.  I know the feeling.

And now today, after all those years, through all those tribulations, including all those times I inwardly cringed when I gazed at his homely face, he is gone, buried deep in the compost pile.   I cannot say that I will miss him.

I’m not sure I’m ready to commit to another baby plecostamus, almost cute in a soft and pliant way, if it means a long term commitment like this last one.

But then, who can I count on to do the cleaning?

The Long Road of Weariness and Want

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,

Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.
Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.
~Malcolm Guite “Refugee”

…as you sit beneath your beautifully decorated tree, eat the rich food of celebration, and laugh with your loved ones, you must not let yourself forget the horror and violence at the beginning and end of the Christmas story. The story begins with the horrible slaughter of children and ends with the violent murder of the Son of God. The slaughter depicts how much the earth needs grace. The murder is the moment when that grace is given.

Look into that manger representing a new life and see the One who came to die. Hear the angels’ celebratory song and remember that sad death would be the only way that peace would be given. Look at your tree and remember another tree – one not decorated with shining ornaments, but stained with the blood of God.

As you celebrate, remember that the pathway to your celebration was the death of the One you celebrate, and be thankful.
~Paul Tripp

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

He came to us
for times such as this,
born of
the dust of woman and
the breath of Spirit,
God who bent down to
lie in barn dust,
walk on roads of dust,
die and be laid to rest as dust
in order to conquer
such evil as this
that could terrify masses
and massacre innocents.

He became dust to be
like us
He began a mere speck in a womb
like us,
so easily washed away
as unexpected, unneeded, unwanted.

Lord, You are long expected.
You are needed
You are wanted.

Your heart beat
like ours
breathing each breath
like ours
until a fearful fallen world
took Your
and our breath
away.

You shine through
the shadows of death
to guide our stumbling uncertain feet.
Your tender mercies flow freely
when there is no consolation
when there is no comfort.

You hear our cries
as You cry too.
You know our tears
as You weep too.
You know our mourning
as You mourned too.
You know our dying
as You died too.

Only God can glue together
what evil has shattered.

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 breath 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

We Are No Longer Alone: It Isn’t Ever Delicate to Live

From other
angles the
fibers look
fragile, but
not from the
spider’s, always
hauling coarse
ropes, hitching
lines to the
best posts
possible. It’s
heavy work
everyplace,
fighting sag,
winching up
give. It
isn’t ever
delicate
to live.

~Kay Ryan “Spiderweb” (2010)

As fragile as a newborn baby is, we know the Son of God was equipped with the toughness he needed for a life that started out homeless, soon to become a refugee with his parents, seeking safety in a foreign land. He grew up in a dusty little town, learning a trade with his hands. He knew what it took to make something strong enough to be worthy. He knew what it would take to make us, his children, worthy.

There is nothing delicate about the life of Jesus; we know it took a strong mother to feed him and care for him, a loving father to raise and teach him, and without both, he would not have survived.

Jesus asks us, his beautiful creation, to choose him to cling to, so as not to sag or tear when under pressure. He asks us to not live delicate either.

We Are No Longer Alone: To Wedge a Path of Light

 When trees have lost remembrance of the leaves
 that spring bequeaths to summer, autumn weaves
 and loosens mournfully — this dirge, to whom
 does it belong — who treads the hidden loom?
 
 When peaks are overwhelmed with snow and ice,
 and clouds with crepe bedeck and shroud the skies — 
 nor any sun or moon or star, it seems,
 can wedge a path of light through such black dreams — 
  
 All motion cold, and dead all traces thereof:
 What sudden shock below, or spark above,
 starts torrents raging down till rivers surge — 
 that aid the first small crocus to emerge?
 
 The earth will turn and spin and fairly soar,
 that couldn't move a tortoise-foot before — 
 and planets permeate the atmosphere
 till misery depart and mystery clear! — 
 
 Who gave it the endurance so to brave
 such elements? — shove winter down a grave? — 
 and then lead on again the universe?
 ~Alfred Kreymborg from "Crocus" 

To be sure, it feels wintry enough still: but often in the very early spring it feels like that. Two thousand years are only a day or two by this [God’s] scale. A man really ought to say, ‘The Resurrection happened two thousand years ago’ in the same spirit in which he says, ‘I saw a crocus yesterday.’ Because we know what is coming behind the crocus. The spring comes slowly down this way; but the great thing is that the corner has been turned. . . It remains with us to follow or not, to die in this winter, or to go on into that spring and that summer.
~C.S. Lewis from God in the Dock

Whether late winter or autumn
the ground yields unexpected crocus,
surprising even to the observant.

Hidden beneath the surface,
their incubation readily triggered
by advancing or retreating light from above.

Waiting with temerity,
to be called forth from earthly grime
and granted reprieve from indefinite interment.

A luminous gift of hope and beauty
borne from a humble bulb
adorned with dirt.

Summoned, the harbinger rises
from sleeping dormant ground in February
or spent topsoil, exhausted by October.

These bold blossoms do not pause
for snow and ice nor hesitate to pierce through
a musty carpet of fallen leaves.

They break free to surge skyward
cloaked in tightly bound brilliance,
deployed against the darkness.

Slowly unfurling, the petals peel to reveal golden crowns,
royally renouncing the chill of winter’s beginning and end,
staying brazenly alive when little else is.

In the end,  they wilt, deeply bruised purple
a reflection of Light made manifest;
returning defeated, inglorious, fallen, to dust.

Yet like the Sun, we know
they will rise yet again.

We Are No Longer Alone: He Will Come Like A Child

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.


He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.


He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.


He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.
~Rowan Williams “Advent Calendar”

How have we diminished the worth of a child?

More and more we resist humanity’s mandate to ensure a future for those who come after us.

Our excuse: the world is dying, the climate an emergency,
how do we dare expose future generations to desolation and destruction?

Better to have no children at all.
So many choose childlessness, doing whatever it takes to remain childless.

Yet all feel outrage at the images of children suffering
and dying trying to escape poverty, homelessness, war and evil:

A toddler lying face down in the water on a Turkish beach,
at first glance almost as if napping, but this sleep is forever.
A father drowned in the Rio Grande protecting his daughter, also drowned,
trying to bring her to a safe future in the States.

This is nothing new in the history of humanity.
We kill unborn children every day in our own private wars
that we justify without guilt or regret.

When confronted by images of dead children while eating breakfast,
when millions cry out with the shame of it,
so many tears falling like raindrops soaking deep on holy ground,
ground we share with the poor and oppressed and homeless,
ground we no longer can hoard.

These images change from one day to the next,
birthing life, taking life,
a child in the womb becomes ghost in the tomb,
so we come undone,
forced to unbuild walls we hide behind.

God Himself came like a child – bloody, broken, crying.
The earth writhes in the reality that if conceived today, Jesus would likely be washed away before His birth, considered inconvenient and so unfortunate to be born to an impoverished refugee family. The world was much too harsh for Him to thrive.

So we would toss away the Son, the Light, the Hope and cling to our darkness.

What is the worth of such a Child?
He answers clearly:
He came because we are worthy of both His birth and His death.

Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
And darkness breathe a newer light,
Where endless faith shall shine serene,
And twilight never intervene

~from Veni Redemptor Genium (Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth)

Oh little child it’s Christmas night
And the sky is filled with glorious light
Lay your soft head so gently down
It’s Christmas night in Bethlehem town.

Chorus:
Alleluia the angels sing
Alleluia to the king
Alleluia the angels sing
Alleluia to the king.

Sleep while the shepherds find their way
As they kneel before you in the golden hay
For they have brought you a woolly lamb
On Christmas night in Bethlehem.

Chorus

Sleep till you wake at the break of day
With the sun’s first dawning ray
You are the babe, who’ll wear the crown
On Christmas morn in Bethlehem town.

Alleluia

We Are No Longer Alone: Just a Few More Weary Days

Today is my mother’s birthday,
but she’s not here to celebrate
by opening a flowery card
or looking calmly out a window.

If my mother were alive,
she’d be 114 years old,
and I am guessing neither of us
would be enjoying her birthday very much.

Mother, I would love to see you again
to take you shopping or to sit
in your sunny apartment with a pot of tea,
but it wouldn’t be the same at 114.

And I’m no prize either,
almost 20 years older than the last time
you saw me sitting by your deathbed.
Some days, I look worse than yesterday’s oatmeal.

It must have been frigid that morning
in the hour just before dawn
on your first December 1st
at the family farm a hundred miles north of Toronto
.

Happy Birthday, anyway. Happy Birthday to you.
~Billy Collins from “December 1”

December 1st is not my mother’s birthday but it was her death day eleven years ago.

Yet it felt a bit like a birth.

The call came from the care center about 5:30 AM on the Monday after Thanksgiving on a frozen morning: her breathing had changed, it wasn’t long now until she’d be gone.

My daughter and I quickly dressed and went out into bleak darkness to make the ten minute drive to where she lay. Mom had been wearily living since a femur fracture 9 months earlier on a cruel April 1st morning. Everything changed for her at 87 years of active living. These nine months had been her gestation time to transition to a new life. It occurred to me she was about to be born in her long-awaited long-feared transition to death.

Her room was darkened except for the multicolored lights on the table top artificial Christmas tree I had brought her a few days earlier. It cast colorful shadows onto the walls and the white bedspread on her hospital bed. It even made her look like she had color to her cheeks where there actually was none.

There was no one home.

She had already left, flown away while we drove the few miles to come to her. There was no reaching her now. Her skin was cooling, her face hollowed by the lack of effort, her body stilled and sunken.

I could not weep at that point – it was time for her to leave us behind. She was so very tired, so very weary, so very ready for heaven. And I, weary too, felt much like yesterday’s oatmeal, something she actually very much loved during your life, cooking up a big batch, enough to last several days.

I know Mom is no longer settling for yesterday’s oatmeal. I know she is eating well, sleeping soundly and her cheeks are full of color. I know she knows the glory of rebirth thanks to her Savior, flown to a land where joy will never end.

Happy Birthday, Mom. Happy December 1st Birthday to you.

I’ll fly away, oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away

Some bright morning when this life is over
I’ll fly away
To that home on God’s celestial shore
I’ll fly away

I’ll fly away, oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away

When the shadows of this life have gone
I’ll fly away
Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly
I’ll fly away

I’ll fly away, oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away

Oh how glad and happy when we meet
I’ll fly away
No more cold iron shackles on my feet
I’ll fly away

I’ll fly away oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away

I’ll fly away oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away

Just a few more weary days and then
I’ll fly away
To a land where joys will never end
I’ll fly away

I’ll fly away oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away
I’ll fly away

~Albert Brumley

God makes us happy as only children can be happy.
God wants to always be with us, wherever we may be –
in our sin, in our suffering and death.
We are no longer alone;
God is with us.
We are no longer homeless;
a bit of the eternal home itself has moved unto us. 
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

To Go With the Drift of Things

Out through the fields and the woods
   And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
   And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
   And lo, it is ended.

 
The leaves are all dead on the ground,
   Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
   And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
   When others are sleeping.

 
And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
   No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
   The flowers of the witch hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
   But the feet question ‘Whither?’

 
Ah, when to the heart of man
   Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
   To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
   Of a love or a season?

~Robert Frost “Reluctance”


 As I kick through piles of fallen leaves in the barnyard, I realize how close I am to becoming one of them. Within my own seasons, I have flourished and bloomed and fruited, but, with aging, am now reminded of my fading, withering and eventual letting go. I find I’m not nearly so bold anymore, instead trembling nervously when harsh winds blow me about.

I have come to question the stability of the stems, branches, trunk and roots I’ve always depended upon. Will they continue to nourish and sustain me?

Everything feels transitory — especially me.

When these thoughts overwhelm, I tend to hang on tighter rather than simply giving up and letting go. My feet stumble when I try to do the same tasks I did so smoothly years ago. I am easily torn, broken and full of holes. No graceful bow from me; I’m stubbornly wanting things to stay the same, reluctant for a transition to something different.

My only solace is that the heart of man — indeed my own holey heart — is transient compared to the holy Heart of God. I am sustained by His steady Pulse, His ubiquitous Circulation, His impeccable Rhythm of Life and Death.

In that I trust. In that I come to abandon my stubborn reluctance.