Take Her Hand

She wakes to gray.
No words to guide the way
toward son. His unfamiliar face seems kind
enough. She nods hello. Just yesterday
she knew his eyes, but now?

This morning’s mind
welcomes the past but not the day. She was
someone: woman who woke at 3:00 to sing
her restless son to sleep, his calm her cause
for celebration. Today the dawn brings

no clarity, yet still the stranger comes
and draws her curtains wide. She thinks outside
is where she left her life: daughters, a son
who meet sunrise without her. Look, the light

is brighter now. The kind man helps her stand.
To see the morning sun, she takes his hand.
~Marjorie Maddox “Alzheimer Aubade”

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 heaven
Waiting

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

Turning Darkness Into Light: Hope Happens

Was certainly not winter, scholars say,
When holy habitation broke the chill
Of hearth-felt separation, icy still,
The love of life in man that Christmas day.
Was autumn, rather, if seasons speak true;
When green retreats from sight’s still ling’ring gaze,
And creeping cold numbs sense in sundry ways,
While settling silence speaks of solitude.
Hope happens when conditions are as these; 
Comes finally lock-armed with death and sin,
When deep’ning dark demands its full display.
Then fallen nature driven to her knees
Flames russet, auburn, orange fierce from within,
And brush burns brighter for the growing grey.
~David Baird “Autumn”

We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Watch for the Light

The shepherds were sore afraid.   Why aren’t we?

The scholars say Christ was more likely born in the autumn of the year ~ so fitting, as the reds and oranges of fall fade fast as we descend into winter soon. 

Murderous frosts have wilted down all that was flush with life and we are desperate for hope for renewal in the midst of the dying.

And so this babe has come like a refiner’s fire and we who have gotten too comfortable will feel the heat in the middle of the chill, no matter what time of year.

Hope happens when conditions are as these…

Deep in the cold of winter,
Darkness and silence were eve’rywhere;
Softly and clearly, there came through the stillness a wonderful sound,
A wonderful sound to hear.

All bells in paradise I heard them ring,
Sounding in majesty the news that they bring;
All bells in paradise I heard them ring,
Welcoming our Saviour, born on earth, a heavenly King.

Chorus:
All bells in paradise, I heard them ring,
‘Glory to God on high’ the angel voices sing.

Lost in awe and wonder,
Doubting I asked what this sign may be;
Christ, our Messiah, revealed in a stable,
A marvelous sight, a marvelous sight to see.

Chorus

He comes down in peace,
A child in humility,
The keys to his kingdom belong to the poor;
Before him shall kneel the kings with their treasures,
Gold, incense, and myrrh.

Chorus
~John Rutter “All Bells in Paradise”

Turning Darkness into Light: A Soft Shroud’s Folding

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.

~Dr. Rowan Williams “Advent Calendar”

He will come when we are at our loneliest
and most discouraged,
not expecting the flash of brilliance
that accompanies this emergence of new life
when all seems dead and dying.

He will come to comfort and console us
with His Words and His reminder
all is not lost
all is not sadness.
Even now,
even now we have hope and we see beauty.

The Departure Gate


and the garden diminishes: cucumber leaves rumpled
and rusty, zucchini felled by borers, tomatoes sparse
on the vines. But out in the perennial beds, there’s one last
blast of color: ignitions of goldenrod, flamboyant
asters, spiraling mums, all those flashy spikes waving
in the wind, conducting summer’s final notes.
The ornamental grasses have gone to seed, haloed
in the last light. Nights grow chilly, but the days
are still warm; I wear the sun like a shawl on my neck
and arms. Hundreds of blackbirds ribbon in, settle
in the trees, so many black leaves, then, just as suddenly,
they’re gone. This is autumn’s great Departure Gate,
and everyone, boarding passes in hand, waits
patiently in a long, long line.
~Barbara Crooker “And Now It’s September” from Spillway

The advance of autumn usually feels like I’m waiting to embark on an unplanned journey that I wish to avoid. I don’t like airports, don’t like the strangeness of unfamiliar destinations, don’t like flying with nothing between me and the ground.

Now “fall” is just like that — like I’m falling.

I look at what is dying around me and know these blasts of color and fruitfulness are their last sad gasps.

So too, when I go out the departure gate, may I go down the long ramp gaily without fear and without regrets — maybe even with a skip in my step as I fall.

A Cataclysm of Making and Unmaking

Everything is made to perish;
the wonder of anything at all is that it has not already done so.
No, he thought.
The wonder of anything is that it was made in the first place.
What persists beyond this cataclysm of making and unmaking?
~Paul Harding from Tinkers

What persists indeed? 

There are times when all appears to be perishing, especially in this dying time of year when the world is drying and burning up around us, blowing smoke hundreds of miles like a giant overhead dust storm soiling the air. 

Each breath reminds us that we are mere ashes.

The obituary pages predominate in the paper, accompanying an overload of ongoing cases of contagious illness, bad news, riots and a pandemic of angry rhetoric. 

All appears to be perishing with no relief or hope.

Waning light and shortening days color my view like the haze in the sky painting a sunset blood red.  This darkness is temporary and inevitably is helpless; it can never overcome the Light of all things made.

Life persists in the midst of perishing because of the cataclysm of a loving and bleeding God dying as sacrifice on our behalf. 

Nothing, nothing can ever be the same – He remains here with us through this. We only need to call His name.

God goes where God has never gone before.
~ Kathleen Mulhern in Dry Bones

Telling Stories

After nourishment, shelter and companionship,
stories are the thing we need most in the world.
Philip Pullman

You’re going to feel like hell if you wake up someday and you never wrote the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your heart: your stories, memories, visions, and songs–your truth, your version of things–in your own voice. That’s really all you have to offer us, and that’s also why you were born.
~Anne Lamott in a recent TED Talk

Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

I began to write after September 11, 2001 because that day it became obvious to me I was dying, albeit more slowly than the thousands who vanished that day in fire and ash, their voices obliterated with their bodies.   So, nearly each day since, while I still have voice and a new dawn to greet, I speak through my fingers and my camera lens to others dying around me.

Over the past several months, there have been too many who have met their end sooner than they wished, having been felled by a rogue virus that cares not who or how badly it infects.

We are, after all, terminal patients, some more imminent than others, some of us more prepared to move on, as if our readiness had anything to do with the timing.

Each day I too get a little closer, so I write and share photos of my world in order to hang on awhile longer, yet with loosening grasp.  Each day I must detach just a little bit, leaving a small trace of my voice and myself behind.  Eventually, through unmerited grace, so much of me will be left on the page there won’t be anything or anyone left to do the typing.

There is no moment or picture or word to waste.

Blooming Impossibly

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

~Li-Young Lee, last stanza of “From Blossoms” from Rose.

… it seemed as if the tiniest seed of belief had finally flowered in me, or, more accurately, as if I had happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert and had known, though I was just then discovering it, that it had been blooming impossibly year after parched year in me, surviving all the seasons of my unbelief.
~Christian Wiman from My Bright Abyss

To live as if
death were nowhere in the background:
that is impossible right now
when death is in every headline
and everyone knows someone
who has been lost to the virus.

Yet, to still emerge and blossom,
despite the dryness and drought of pandemic~
this is Christ’s call to us.
 
We are not dying,
but alive in Him,
an amazing impossible flowering.

So I allow my eye to peer through
a dying time such as this,
needing a flotation device
and depth finder
as I’m likely to get lost,
sweeping and swooning
through the inner space
of life’s deep tunnels,
canyons and corners,
coming up for air and diving in again
to journey into exotic locales
draped in silken hues
~this fairy land on a stem~
to immerse and emerge
in the possibilities
of such an impossible blossom.

It Doesn’t Matter a Hill of Beans

I spent this morning adjusting to this change in season by occupying myself with the familiar task of moving manure.  Cleaning barn is a comforting chore, allowing me to transform tangible benefit from something objectionable and just plain stinky to the nurturing fertilizer of the future. It feels like I’ve actually accomplished something.

As I scooped and pushed the wheelbarrow, I remembered another barn cleaning twenty years ago, when I was one of three or four friends left cleaning over ninety stalls after a Haflinger horse event that I had organized at our local fairgrounds. Some people had brought their horses from over 1000 miles away to participate for several days.  Whenever horse people gather, there were personality clashes and harsh words among some participants along with criticism directed at me that I had taken very personally.  As I struggled with the umpteenth wheelbarrow load of manure, tears stung my eyes and my heart.  I was miserable with regrets.   After going without sleep and making personal sacrifices over many months planning and preparing for the benefit of our group,  my work felt like it had not been acknowledged or appreciated.

My friend Jenny had stayed behind with her family to help clean up the large facility and she could see I was struggling to keep my composure.  Jenny put herself right in front of my wheelbarrow and looked me in the eye, insisting I stop for a moment and listen.

“You know,  none of these troubles and conflicts will amount to a hill of beans years from now.  People will remember a fun event in a beautiful part of the country,  a wonderful time with their horses, their friends and family, and they’ll be all nostalgic about it, not giving a thought to the infighting or the sour attitudes or who said what to whom.   So don’t make this about you and whether you did or didn’t make everyone happy.  You loved us all enough to make it possible to meet here and the rest was up to us.  So quit being upset about what you can’t change.  There’s too much you can still do for us.”

During tough times which still come often in my professional life,  Jenny’s advice replays, reminding me to stop seeking appreciation from others, or feeling hurt when harsh words come my way.   She was right about the balm found in the tincture of time and she was right about giving up the upset in order to die to self and self absorption, and keep focusing outward.

Jenny, I have remembered what you said even though sometimes I emotionally relapse and forget.

Jenny herself spent the next six years literally dying, while vigorously living her life every day, fighting a relentless cancer that was initially helpless in the face of her faith and intense drive to live.    She became a rusting leaf, fading imperceptibly over time, crumbling at the edges until she finally let go.   Her dying did not flash brilliance, nor draw attention at the end.  Her intense focus during the years of her illness had always been outward to others, to her family and friends, to the healers she spent so much time with in medical offices, to her belief in the plan God had written for her and others.

Despite her intense love for her husband and young children, she had to let go her hold on life here.   And we all had to let her go.  

Brilliance cloaks her as her focus is now on things eternal.

You were so right, Jenny.  No conflicts from twenty years ago amounted to a hill of beans; all is remembered fondly by those who were part of the gathering. I especially treasure the words you wisely spoke to me.

And I’m no longer upset that I can’t change the fact that you have left us. There is still so much you do for us, alive in our memories.

I know we’ll catch up later.

Jenny R –photo by Ginger Kathleen Coombs

A World of Crowded Cups to Fill

sphere of pillowed sky
one faceless gathering of blue.
..

… I’m tethered, and devoted
to your raw and lonely bloom

my lavish need to drink
your world of crowded cups to fill.
~Tara Bray “hydrangea” from Image Journal

Like in old cans of paint the last green hue,
these leaves are sere and rough and dull-complected
behind the blossom clusters in which blue
is not so much displayed as it’s reflected;

They do reflect it imprecise and teary,
as though they’d rather have it go away,
and just like faded, once blue stationery,
they’re tinged with yellow, violet and gray;

As in an often laundered children’s smock,
cast off, its usefulness now all but over,
one senses running down a small life’s clock.

Yet suddenly the blue revives, it seems,
and in among these clusters one discovers
a tender blue rejoicing in the green.
~Rainer Maria Rilke “Blue Hydrangea” Translation by Bernhard Frank

Dwelling within a mosaic of dying colors,
these petals fold and collapse
under the weight of the sky’s tears.

This hydrangea bears a rainbow of hues,
once-vibrant promises of blue
now fading to rusts and grays.

I know what this is like:
the running out of the clock,
feeling the limits of vitality.

Withering and drying,
I’m drawn, thirsty for the beauty,
to this waning artist’s palette.

To quench my thirst:
from an open cup, an invitation,
an everlasting visual sacrament.

Something Way Down Deep

We all know that something is eternal. 
And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, 
and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars 
. . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, 
and that something has to do with human beings. 
All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that 
for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised 
how people are always losing hold of it. 
There’s something way down deep 
that’s eternal about every human being.
~Thornton Wilder, from “Our Town”

Write as if you were dying.
At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients.
That is, after all, the case.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

I began to write regularly after September 11, 2001 because more than on any previous day, it became obvious to me I was dying, though more slowly than the thousands who vanished that day in fire and ash, their voices obliterated with their bodies into eternity.  

Nearly each day since, while I still have voice and a new dawn to greet, I speak through my fingers to others dying with and around me.

We are, after all, terminal patients — some of us more prepared than others to move on — as if our readiness had anything to do with the timing.

Each day I get a little closer to the eternal, but I write in order to feel a little more ready.  Each day I want to detach just a little bit, leaving a trace of my voice behind.  Eventually, through unmerited grace, so much of me will be left on the page there won’t be anything or anyone left to do the typing.

There is no time or word to waste.