Keeps Us Coming Back

What we owned was piled on the bed
and warmed the room with the smell
of bodies, bleach, and dryer sheets.
You, on one side, folded the colors
and I, on the other, the whites. Between us,
years, children, holes in the knees, stains.

What you folded became gifts, wrapped,
too beautiful to open. I watched you work
as I took sock after sock and married them.
We knew that most of what we did
would be undone, but it kept us coming back
to the same bed, the same warm room.
~Jim Richards, “Laundry” from Mud Season Review #15

All day the blanket snapped and swelled
on the line, roused by a hot spring wind….
From there it witnessed the first sparrow,
early flies lifting their sticky feet,
and a green haze on the south-sloping hills.
Clouds rose over the mountain….At dusk
I took the blanket in, and we slept,
restless, under its fragrant weight.
~Jane Kenyon “Wash”

Twenty years ago the green square beyond
our back door was webbed with lines
on which I hung with wooden pegs
my angels and my ghosts –white nightgowns
winged in the wind, shrouds of tablecloths,
shirts fluting their spooky sleeves,
their dwindling tails — shadows of the lucid cloth
moving like water on the grass.

Now we live over a basement dryer churning
beneath a 40-watt bulb. The trap keeps filling
with a gray lint as my cloths, my second skins,
are dried out by the dialed minute.
The air behind the house is empty
of apparitions, epiphanies. Gone
is the iron-fresh smell of damp linens
praying their vapor to the sun.
~Luci Shaw “Evaporation” from Water Lines

We need to always be on the lookout for simple pleasures that keep us coming back for more again and again.

Clean laundry freshly dried on the clothesline is one of them. True, the towels and sheets are rougher when the wind has snapped them into shape rather than a rolling dryer drum with fabric softener sheets. The scent of the outdoors more than makes up for the sandpaper feel. I bury my face in the pile as I bring it inside to fold and put away.

Smoothing, folding, stacking, creating order- it will be undone and redone in merely a week, yet is such a comforting routine.

Even when there is disarray, when we are soiled and smelly, when we feel tossed into the dirty clothes hamper, we can be restored. Water and cleansing and wind bearing fresh air ready us to be folded and smoothed and stowed away until we are needed.

We don’t just keep coming back; we are called back. We are loved so much that dirty doesn’t matter because it always (always) can be made clean.

The Ordinary Stuff of Earth Manifest

Passing down this story of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension is not merely, or mainly, an exercise in cognition. Nor is it a divinely inspired game of telephone, where we simply whisper a message to the next generation through the ages.

Inevitably the story comes to us through ordinary people over dinner tables, at work, in songs, through worship, conflict, failure, repentance, ritual, liturgy, art, work and family. Christianity is something we believe, but it is also a practice. Central to our practice is what Christians call sacraments, where the mysteries of faith are manifest through the ordinary stuff of earth—water and skin, bread and teeth.

~Tish Harrison Warren from “True Story”

photo of Wiser Lake Chapel by Barbara Hoelle

schizomeno—meaning in Greek “ripped open.” It occurs twice in the Gospels: once when the temple veil is torn the day of Christ’s crucifixion. The other is when “the heavens opened” upon Christ’s baptism. But they didn’t just “open.” They were ripped open. God broke into history with a voice and an act of salvation unlike any other. 

To study the Bible with people of faith is to see it not only as an object of academic or antiquarian interest but also as a living word, a source of intellectual challenge, inspiration, comfort, uncomfortable ambiguities, and endless insights for people who gather in willingness to accept what seems to be God’s invitation: Wrestle with this. Healthy churches wrestle, working out their salvation over coffee and concordances, knowing there is nothing pat or simple about the living Word, but that it invites us into subtle, supple, resilient relationship with the Word made flesh who dwells, still, among us.
~Marilyn McEntyre from “Choosing Church”

Ripped open to allow access – that is what God has done to enter into this ordinary stuff of earth, and giving us access to Him.

I enter the church sanctuary every Sunday to be reminded of this wrestling match we have with ourselves, with each other, with the every day ordinary stuff, with the living Word of God. None of this is easy and it isn’t meant to be. We must work for understanding and struggle for contentment.

I keep going back – gladly, knowing my guilt, eager to be transformed – not only because I choose to be in church, but because He chose to invite me there.

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.