We never know if the turn is into the home stretch. We call it that—a stretch of place and time—with vision of straining, racing. We acknowledge each turn with cheers though we don’t know how many laps remain. But we can hope the course leads on far and clear while the horses have strength and balance on their lean legs, fine-tuned muscles, desire for the length of the run. Some may find the year smooth, others stumble at obstacles along the way. We never know if the finish line will be reached after faltering, slowing, or in mid-stride, leaping forward. ~Judy Ray, “Turning of the Year”
I’m well along on this journey, yet still feeling tethered to the starting gate. I’m testing how far the residual connection to beginning will stretch; there is still a strong tug to return back to how things were, like a bungee cord at the limits of its capacity.
Yet there is also an inexorable pull to destinations ahead. I know what once was a vital conduit to the past is withering with age, so I must move forward, unsure what is around the bend.
It can be turbulent out there without former ties and tethers as anchors in the storm. It is possible I will lose my balance, stumble and fall and end up limping the rest of the way.
When I hear the call of a new year, I know it is time to simply face the wind and surge ahead to what is coming next, no matter what it may be. I can choose to struggle along, worried and anxious about the unknown, or I can leap ahead at a skip and jump, jubilant, eager, ready, feeling nearly weightless in my anticipation of a joyful finish line.
God came to us because he wanted to join us on the road, to listen to our story, and to help us realize that we are not walking in circles but moving toward the house of peace and joy. This is the great mystery of Christmas that continues to give us comfort and consolation: we are not alone on our journey. The God of love who gave us life sent his only Son to be with us at all times and in all places, so that we never have to feel lost in our struggles but always can trust that he walks with us.
The challenge is to let God be who he wants to be. A part of us clings to our aloneness and does not allow God to touch us where we are most in pain. Often we hide from him precisely those places in ourselves where we feel guilty, ashamed, confused, and lost. Thus we do not give him a chance to be with us where we feel most alone.
Christmas is the renewed invitation not to be afraid and to let him—whose love is greater than our own hearts and minds can comprehend—be our companion. ~Henri Nouwen from Gracias!
Like so many, I tend to walk through life blinded to what is really important, essential and necessary. I am self-absorbed, immersed in my own troubles and concerns, staring at my own feet as I walk each step, rather than looking forward at the road ahead, listening to the companion who has always walked beside me.
We were joined by this living breathing walking God on the road to Emmaus as He fed us from His word. I hunger for even more, my heart burning within me. Jesus makes plain how He Himself addresses my most basic needs:
He is the bread of life so I am fed.
He is the living water so I no longer thirst.
He is the light so I am never left in darkness.
He shares my yoke so my burden is easier.
He clothes me with righteousness so I am never naked.
He cleanses me when I am at my most soiled and repugnant.
He is the open door–always welcoming, with a room prepared for me, even me, the poor ornery person I am.
So when I encounter Him along the road of my life, I need to be ready to recognize him, listen, invite Him in to stay, share whatever I have with Him. When He breaks bread and hands me my piece, I want to accept it with open eyes of gratitude, knowing the gift He hands me is nothing less than Himself, the Companion we were blessed with Christmas morning.
Does the road wind up-hill all the way? Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day? From morn to night, my friend.
But is there for the night a resting-place? A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face? You cannot miss that inn.
Shall I meet other wayfarers at night? Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight? They will not keep you standing at that door.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak? Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek? Yea, beds for all who come. ~Christina Rossetti “Up-Hill”
It is a comfort to sleep in our own bed after being away for a week. We drove uphill much of yesterday through numerous mountain passes, but then when we descended back into western Washington as darkness descended, we were greeted by the familiar landscape of home.
This life of ours can be a weary and sometimes perilous journey. There are times when it is so dark we’re not sure we can see the road, much less where it is headed or when and where we may be able to rest.
Many have gone on before us so that we will not be left stranded, lost and waiting by the roadside. There is a place waiting for wayfarers like us.
The door is flung open – those who are weary are welcomed with open arms. The road uphill points to the best home of all.
In the quiet misty morning When the moon has gone to bed, When the sparrows stop their singing And the sky is clear and red, When the summer’s ceased its gleaming When the corn is past its prime, When adventure’s lost its meaning – I’ll be homeward bound in time
Bind me not to the pasture Chain me not to the plow Set me free to find my calling And I’ll return to you somehow
If you find it’s me you’re missing If you’re hoping I’ll return, To your thoughts I’ll soon be listening, And in the road I’ll stop and turn Then the wind will set me racing As my journey nears its end And the path I’ll be retracing When I’m homeward bound again
Bind me not to the pasture Chain me not to the plow Set me free to find my calling And I’ll return to you somehow
In the quiet misty morning When the moon has gone to bed, When the sparrows stop their singing I’ll be homeward bound again. ~Marta Keen “Homeward Bound”
In my father’s near daily letters home to my mother during WWII, month after month after month, he would say, over and over while apologizing for the repetition: “I will come home to you, I will return, I will not let this change me, we will be joined again…”
This was his way of convincing himself even as he carried the dead and dying after island battles: men he knew well and the enemy he did not know. He knew they were never returning to the home they died protecting and to those who loved them.
He shared little of battle in his letters as each letter was reviewed and signed off by a censor before being sealed and sent. This story made it through:
“You mentioned a story of Navy landing craft taking the Marines into Tarawa. It reminded me of something which impressed me a great deal and something I’m sure I’ll never forget.
So you’ll understand what I mean I’ll try to start with an explanation. In training – close order drill- etc. there is a command that is given always when the men form in the morning – various times during the day– after firing– and always before a formation is dismissed. The command is INSPECTION – ARMS. On the command of EXECUTION- ARMS each man opens the bolt of his rifle. It is supposed to be done in unison so you hear just one sound as the bolts are opened. Usually it is pretty good and sounds O.K.
Just to show you how the morale of the men going to the beach was – and how much it impressed me — we were on our way in – I was forward, watching the beach thru a little slit in the ramp – the men were crouched in the bottom of the boat, just waiting. You see- we enter the landing boats with unloaded rifles and wait till it’s advisable before loading. When we got about to the right distance in my estimation I turned around and said – LOAD and LOCK – I didn’t realize it, but every man had been crouching with his hand on the operating handle and when I said that — SLAM! — every bolt was open at once – I’ve never heard it done better – and those men meant business when they loaded those rifles.
A man couldn’t be afraid with men like that behind him.”
My father did return home to my mother after almost three years of separation. He was “bound to the pasture and chained to the plow” as he resumed his love of farming the land and teaching others how it is done.
He never forgot those who died, making it possible for him to return home. I won’t forget either.
Tell me, where is the road I can call my own, That I left, that I lost So long ago? All these years I have wandered, Oh when will I know There’s a way, there’s a road That will lead me home?
After wind, after rain, When the dark is done, As I wake from a dream In the gold of day, Through the air there’s a calling From far away, There’s a voice I can hear That will lead me home.
Rise up, follow me, Come away, is the call, With the love in your heart As the only song; There is no such beauty As where you belong; Rise up, follow me, I will lead you home. ~Stephen Paulus “The Road Home”
we who are wanderers–
who take wrong turns never ask for directions stumble over the rough roads find ourselves in the ditch get distracted by sightseeing and forget our ultimate destination
we are ready to heed the call that leads us home
nothing we’ve seen thus far no song we’ve heard no goal achieved compares to the beauty that awaits us
He sometimes felt that he had missed his life By being far too busy looking for it. Searching the distance, he often turned to find That he had passed some milestone unaware…
The path grew easier with each passing day, Since it was worn and mostly sloped downhill. The road ahead seemed hazy in the gloom. Where was it he had meant to go, and with whom? ~Dana Gioia from “The Road” from 99 Poems: New and Selected
The Road goes ever on and on Out from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone. Let others follow, if they can! Let them a journey new begin. But I at last with weary feet Will turn towards the lighted inn, My evening-rest and sleep to meet.
Still ’round the corner there may wait A new road or secret gate; And though I oft have passed them by, A day will come at last when I Shall take the hidden paths that run West of the Moon, East of the Sun. ~J.R.R Tolkien from “Roads Go Ever On”
Like many others, I have experienced the disconcerting feeling of traveling a familiar route with my mind completely disengaged. Suddenly I find myself at my destination without a conscious realization of how I even got there or what I saw along the way. Or maybe I was doing a routine daily task and later couldn’t remember having done it (did I shut off the barn faucet or are the water barrels flooding over all day?) because my head was somewhere else.
We describe this as “auto-pilot” or “body memory” or more distressingly “dissociation” — most therapists prescribe “mindfulness” to reengage us in our daily lives and thoughts. I’m not sure it is mindfulness that I practice, but I do force regular “brain check-ins” to anchor me to a time and place and task. (“yes, I have just passed that intersection where that truck and trailer almost hit me years ago and I am grateful to still be alive” or “I am now shutting off the barn faucet and won’t have to think about it again until tomorrow, thank you very much!”)
I regret “missing out” on experiencing my journey because I was so busy scanning the horizon for what is to come or looking back at where I’ve been, or watching where my feet will land or thinking about anywhere but where I was in the moment.
I need to acknowledge the milestones and not pass them by unawares — stopping at the view points, reading the historical markers, taking a breather at the rest stops. I seek to find the hidden paths and explore them rather than be solely destination-driven.
I must pay attention to who is alongside me and be ready to steady them if they trip or stumble, and pray they’ll catch me if I start to fall.
And most importantly, may I stay pointed toward the lighted inn that is awaiting all of us.
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.