I Am Responsible

In your extended absence, you permit me
use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment. I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.
I think I should not be encouraged to grow
tomatoes. Or, if I am, you should withhold
the heavy rains, the cold nights that come
so often here, while other regions get
twelve weeks of summer. All this
belongs to you: on the other hand,
I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots
like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart
broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly
multiplying in the rows. I doubt
you have a heart, in our understanding of
that term. You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence,
immune to foreshadowing, you may not know
how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
even in August, in early darkness: I am responsible for these vines.
~Louise Glück “Vespers”

As the calendar turns to September and August fades away, I know all too well what this means. I have spent a lifetime loving the season of autumn best of all, but that is because I wasn’t living it, and it seems now I am.

More and more the blight feels personal, the color change is in the mirror looking back at me, the leaves falling from my own scalp, the threat of rot setting in quite real. There is nothing “pumpkin spice” and “harvest gold” about growing older.

Even so, the fruit I try to bear is still edible even if not as presentable; the vine still bears useful life. A first frost forces ripening and prepares what remains because time is short and there is so much yet to get done.

I feel the responsibility of making all this effort count for something. I am here because I was intentionally planted, weeded, nurtured, watered and warmed. When it is my turn, the rot is cut away and thankfully forgotten.

I will still be sweet to the taste, just as I am meant to be.

Bread Broken

The bus releases you beside the bakery
at 5 AM. His light’s on. You can smell
the secret life of bread– the russet brawny
shoulders rising in the pan, yeast swelling
yearning toward croissants, pretzels, braided
curls of challah.
You give the baker money,
he gives you a loaf. Neither of you can say
the mystery you share like lovers. You shyly nod
and bear your loneliness to work
in helpless hands. Whatever it is, you can
not explain the one thing that matters.
You break
his bread at noon and fling it toward frozen
ducks on the millpond and you awaken
from what you’ve been.
You want to be bread broken.
~ Jeanne Murray Walker “Baker” from Pilgrim, You Find Your Path By Walking


We all harbor mystery; oftentimes we can’t even decipher what is in our hearts, much less communicate it to another. Breaking open may be the only way to reveal it but that can be too much for even the strongest of us.

We are not a mystery to God. We are transparent as shattered glass to Him when we are opaque to ourselves and others.

He knows our comings and goings, where our cracks are and where the glue continues to hold in what has already been repaired.

Most of all, He knows Himself what it means to be broken to feed others – flung and woke — even for those who turn their backs to a meal to freedom.

Leading a Lost One Home

I appear at the kitchen door,
spiritual equivalent
of a wet dog from a storm,
tail tucked, trembling.
You open your lives, this life,
provide prayerful provision,
a vigorous toweling down,
a large bowl of kibbles.
I curl up and sleep safe on the rug by your heart,
the chapel that warms His,
and so, restored, return
to the weary world rejoicing,
perhaps to provide
a bracing swig from the fiery word,
perhaps to lead a lost one home.
~Bonnie Thurston “Strays” from O Taste and See

How many times have I shown up
muddy, cold, hungry
and you invited me in,
dried me off,
offered me your supper,
let me sleep warmed and safe?

How many times
did I go back out into the world
with every good intention
of doing the same for other strays
and yet get lost again myself?

You call me back,
whistle me in,
open the door
to let me know
no matter how much of a mess I’m in
your hearth,
your heart
await my return.

The Coiled Shell of Their Lives

Needing them still, I come
when I can, this time to the sea
where we share a room: their double bed,
my single. Morning fog paints the pale
scene even paler. Lace curtains breathing,
the chenille spread folded back,
my father’s feet white sails furled
at the edge of blue pajamas.
Every child’s dream, a parent
in each hand, though this child is fifty.
Their bodies fit easily, with room
to spare. When did they grow
so small? Grow so small—
as if it were possible to swell
backwards into an earlier self.


One more year, I ask the silence.
Last night to launch myself
into sleep I counted their breaths, the tidal
rise and fall I now put my ear to,
the coiled shell of their lives.
~Rebecca McClanahan from “Watching my Parents Sleeping Beside an Open Window Near the Sea” from Deep Light: New and Selected Poems.

My parents have been gone now for some time, my father over 25 years, my mother now over 10 years. Their dying was a long process of counted breaths and pauses. I witnessed their bodies curling into themselves, shrinking smaller, worn down by illness and age.

I still miss them, reminded of them by the events of my own life, still wanting them to take me by the hand as I navigate my own daily path.

After mom’s death, those possessions not distributed to family members have remained packed up and stored in our barn buildings. I know it is well past time to deal with their stuff as I become keenly aware of my own greying and aging.

Untouched in the bookshelf of our bedroom is a sealed box of over 500 letters written by my mother and father between 1941 and 1945. I know the letters began as they were getting to know each other at college, then going from “pinned” to “engaged” and continue for three and a half more years after a hurried wedding Christmas Eve 1942. By mid January 1943 my newly minted Marine officer father shipped out to spend the next three years of his life on the Pacific Ocean, fighting on the battlefields of Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa, not to return again to the states until late summer of 1945. My mother wrote her letters from a rural eastern Washington community, living in a “teachers’ cottage” with other war wives who taught school while waiting for their husbands to return home – or not.

It has taken me a decade to find the courage and time to devote to reading these letters they treasured and never threw away. Yesterday I sorted them unopened by postmark date into some semblance of order and sat down to start at the very beginning, which, of course, is my beginning as well. Only sixty letters in, I open each one with some trepidation and a lump in my throat about what I might find written there. I worry I may find things I don’t want to know. I hope I find things that I desperately need to know.

Most of all I want to understand the two people who became my parents within the coiled shell of their forty years together, though broken by a painful divorce which lasted a decade. Having lived through that awful time with them, I want to understand the origin of a love which mended their cracked shell, glueing them back together for five more years before my father died.

As I read their words over the next few weeks, I hope I too can cross a bridge back to them both.

Grace is Glue

Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue.
~Eugene O’Neill

We are born hollering,
already aware of our brokenness –
our emptiness evident
from the first breath,
each tiny air sac bursting
with the air of a fallen world
that is never quite enough to satisfy.

The rest of our days are spent
filling up our empty spaces:
whether alveoli
or stomach
or synapse hungry for knowledge;
still hollering and heart
broken.

So we mend and are mended
through healing another,
sewn up
by knitting together
the scraggly fragments of lives,
becoming the crucial glue
boiled from His gifted Grace,
all empty holes made holy
when filled to brimming
so wholly.

Moving at Summer’s Pace

mowingfield

 

Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death

It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers,
With hedges snowlike strewn,

White lilac bowed,
Lost lanes of Queen Anne’s lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer’s pace.~
~Philip Larkin “Cut Grass” from The Complete Poems

Light and wind are running
over the headed grass
as though the hill had 
melted and now flowed.
~Wendell Berry “June Wind”

The uncut field grass is growing heavier, falling over, lodged before it can be cut; the undulations of summer breezes urge it back upright.  It has matured too fast, rising up too lush, too overcome with itself so that it can no longer stand unsupported.  We must work fast to save it and more rain is on the way.

Light and wind work magic on a field of melting tall grass.  The blades of the mower will come to lay it to the ground in green streams that flow up and down the slopes.  It will lie comfortless in its stoneless cemetery rows, until tossed about by the tedder into random piles to dry, then raked back into a semblance of order in mounded lines flowing over the landscape.

It will be crushed and bound together for transport to the barn,
no longer bending but bent,
no longer flowing but flown,
no longer growing but grown

We move at summer’s pace to ensure the grasses become fodder for the beasts of the farm during the cold nights when the wind beats at the doors. It will melt in their mouths, as it was meant to be.  

Way Out Beyond Us

My father would lift me
to the ceiling in his big hands
and ask, 
How’s the weather up there?
And it was good, the weather
of being in his hands, his breath
of scotch and cigarettes, his face
smiling from the world below.
O daddy, was the lullaby I sang
back down to him as he stood on earth,
my great, white-shirted father, home
from work, his gold wristwatch
and wedding band gleaming
as he held me above him
for as long as he could,
before his strength failed
down there in the world I find myself
standing in tonight, my little boy
looking down from his flight
below the ceiling, cradled in my hands,
his eyes wide and already staring
into the distance beyond the man
asking him again and again,
How’s the weather up there?
~George Bilgere “Weather”.

It was hard work, dying, harder
than anything he’d ever done.

Whatever brutal, bruising, back-
breaking chore he’d forced himself

to endure—it was nothing
compared to this. And it took

so long. When would the job
be over? Who would call him

home for supper? And it was
hard for us (his children)—

all of our lives we’d heard
my mother telling us to go out,

help your father, but this
was work we could not do.

He was way out beyond us,
in a field we could not reach.

~Joyce Sutphen “My Father, Dying”

Deep in one of our closets is an old film reel of me about 16 months old sitting securely held by my father on his shoulders. I am bursting out with giggles as he repeatedly bends forward, dipping this head and shoulders down. I tip forward, looking like I am about to fall off, and when he stands back up straight, my mouth becomes a large O and I can almost remember the tummy tickle I feel. I want him to do it again and again, taking me to the edge of falling off and then bringing me back from the brink.

My father was a tall man, so being swept up onto his shoulders felt a bit like I was touching heaven.

It was as he was dying 24 years ago this week that I realized again how tall he was — his feet kept hitting the foot panel of the hospital bed my mother had requested for their home. We cushioned his feet with padding so he wouldn’t get abrasions even though he would never stand on them again, no longer towering over us.

His helplessness in dying was startling – this man who could build anything and accomplish whatever he set his mind to was unable to subdue his cancer. Our father, who was so self-sufficient he rarely asked for help, did not know how to ask for help now.

So we did what we could when we could tell he was uncomfortable, which wasn’t often. He didn’t say much, even though there was much we could have been saying. We didn’t reminisce. We didn’t laugh and joke together. We just were there, taking shifts catching naps on the couch so we could be available if he called out, which he never did.

This man:
who had grown up dirt poor,
fought hard with his alcoholic father
left abruptly to go to college – the first in his family –
then called to war for three years in the South Pacific.

This man:
who had raised a family on a small farm while he was a teacher,
then a supervisor, then a desk worker.

This man:
who left our family to marry another woman
but returned after a decade to ask forgiveness.

This man:
who died in a house he had built completely himself,
without assistance, from the ground up.

He didn’t need our help – he who had held tightly to us and brought us back from the brink when we went too far – he had been on the brink himself and was rescued, coming back humbled.

No question the weather is fine for him up there. I have no doubt.