That Patch of Sunlight

It appears now that there is only one
age and it knows
nothing of age as the flying birds know
nothing of the air they are flying through
or of the day that bears them up
through themselves
and I am a child before there are words
arms are holding me up in a shadow
voices murmur in a shadow
as I watch one patch of sunlight moving
across the green carpet
in a building
gone long ago and all the voices
silent and each word they said in that time
silent now
while I go on seeing that patch of sunlight

~W.S. Merwin, “Still Morning” from The Shadow of Sirius

photo by Barbara Hoelle

Our memories can play tricks. A whiff of a fragrance can trigger an experience of another time and place, a song can transport us to a decade long ago, a momentary sensation will remind us of a past experience long forgotten.

We dwell inside a different age as the years go by, in a body that no longer looks or feels exactly the same, yet our memories take us powerfully back to a special moment that happened before. For those who struggle with post-trauma recollections, this is a curse to be overcome. For those whose memories bring joy and comfort, they seek to nurture and cherish what has been as if it is still here and now.

We must remember the light, just as the poet W.S. Merwin in this poem “Still Morning” remembers the moment of his baptism in a church long gone and whose voices are long-stilled. The Light of that day remains, as fresh today as it was when it moved toward him.

Our memories aren’t tricks. They are as powerfully a part of us as the here and now: a moving patch light touching us here from back then.

Not Just Any Drunk

I remember my grandfather as a somber quiet man who used to slowly rock in a wooden chair that now sits empty in our house.

Not too long before, my Grandpa drank heavily but he wasn’t just any drunk.  He was a mean drunk.  Surly, cursing, prone to throwing things and people, especially at home.

Grandma used to say he learned to drink in the logging camps and I suspect that is true.  He started working as a logger before he was fully grown, dropping out of school, leaving home around age sixteen and heading up to the hills where real money could be made.  He learned more than how to cut down huge old growth Douglas Fir trees, skid them down the hills using a team of horses, and then roll them onto waiting wagons to be hauled to the mills.  He learned how to live with a group of men who surfaced once or twice a month from the hills to take a bath and maybe go to church with their womenfolk. Mostly he learned how to curse and drink.

He headed home to the  farm with muscles and attitude a few years later, and started the process of felling trees there, creating a “stump farm” that was a challenge to work because huge stumps dotted the fields and hills.  He slowly worked at blasting them out of the ground so the land could be tilled.  It proved more than he had strength and motivation to do, so his fields were never very fruitful, mostly growing hay for his own animals.  He went to work in the local saw mill to make ends meet.

He cleaned up some when he met my grandmother, who at eighteen was twelve years younger, and eager to escape her role as chief cook and bottle washer for her widowed father and younger brother.   She was devout, lively and full of energy and talked constantly while he, especially when sober, preferred to let others do the talking.  It was an unusual match but he liked her cooking and she was ready to escape the drudgery of her father’s household and be wooed.

They settled on the stump farm and began raising a family, trying to eke out what living they could from the land, from the sporadic work he found at the saw mill, and every Sunday, took the wagon a mile down the road to the Bible Church where they both sang with gusto.

He still drank when he had the money, blowing his pay in the local tavern, and stumbling in the back door roaring and burping, falling into bed with his shoes on.  Grandma was a teetotaler and yelled into his ruddy face about the wrath of God anytime he drank, their four children hiding when the dishes started to fly, and when he would whip off his belt to hit anyone who looked sideways at him.

When their eldest daughter took sick and died quickly of lymphoma at age eight despite the little doctoring that was available, Grandpa got sober for awhile.  He saw it as punishment from God, or at least that is what Grandma told him through her sobs as she struggled to cope with her loss.

Over the years, he relapsed many times, losing fingers in his work at the mill, and losing the respect of his wife, his children and the people in the community.  Grandma left with the kids for several months to cook in a boarding house in a neighboring town, simply to be able to feed her family while Grandpa squandered what he had on drink.   Reconciled over and over again, Grandma would come back to him, sending their growing son to fetch him from the tavern for the night.  My Dad would bicycle to that dark and smoky place,  stand Grandpa up and guide him staggering out to their truck for the weaving drive home on country roads.  On more than one occasion, Grandpa, belligerent as ever, would resist leaving and throw a punch at his boy, usually missing by a mile.

But once the boy grew taller and strong enough to fight back, managing to knock Grandpa to the ground in self-defense, the punching and resistance stopped.   The boozing didn’t.

Grandpa sobered up for good while his boy fought in the war overseas in the forties, striking a bargain with God that his boy would come home safe as long as Grandpa left alcohol alone.  It stuck and he stayed sober.  His boy came home.  Grandpa saw it as a promise kept and became an elder in his Bible Church, taught Sunday School and gave his extra cash to the church rather than the tavern.

Sitting in a Christmas Sunday School program one Christmas Eve, Grandpa leaned toward Grandma and she noticed his face broken out in sweat, his face ashen.

“It’s hot in here, “ he said and collapsed in her lap.    He was gone, just like that, and he left the rest of his family behind while sitting in church, sober as can be,  on the day before Christmas.

Finally everlastingly forgiven, he headed one more time, not weaving or swerving but on the straight and narrow,  home.

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

I am Alive…

I am a feather on the bright sky

I am the blue horse that runs in the plain

I am the fish that rolls, shining, in the water

I am the shadow that follows a child

I am the evening light, the lustre of meadows

I am an eagle playing with the wind

I am a cluster of bright beads

I am the farthest star

I am the cold of dawn

I am the roaring of the rain

I am the glitter on the crust of the snow

I am the long track of the moon in a lake

I am a flame of four colors

I am a deer standing away in the dusk

I am a field of sumac and the pomme blanche

I am an angle of geese in the winter sky

I am the hunger of a young wolf

I am the whole dream of these things
You see, I am alive, I am alive
~N. Scott Momaday from “The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee” from In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems

I wonder if, in the dark night of the sea, the octopus dreams of me.
~N. Scott Momaday

If I am brutally honest with myself, one of my worst fears is to have lived on this earth for a few decades and then pass away forgotten, inconsequential, having left behind no legacy of significance whatsoever.  I know it is self-absorbed to feel the need to leave a mark, but my search for purpose and meaning lasting beyond my time here provides new momentum for each day.

The forgetting can happen so fast.  Most people know little about their great great grandparents, if they even know their names.  A mere four generations, a century, renders us dust, not just in flesh, but in memory as well.   There may be a yellowed photograph in a box somewhere, perhaps a tattered postcard or letter written in elegant script, but the essence of who this person was is long lost and forgotten. We owe it to our descendants to write down the stories about who we were while we lived on this earth. We need to share why we lived, for whom we lived, for what we lived.

I suspect however, unless I try every day to record some part of who I am, it will be no different with me and those who come after me.  Whether or not we are remembered by great great grandchildren or become part of the dreams of creatures in the depths of the seas:

we are just dust here and there is no changing that.

Good thing this is not our only home.  
Good thing we are more than mere memory and dreams. 
Good thing there is eternity that transcends good works
or long memories or legacies left behind. 
Good thing we are loved that much and always will be,
Forever and ever, Amen.

If you appreciate reading Barnstorming daily, consider a contribution to keep it going ad-free.

Readiness to Die

Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. 
It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.
~ G.K. Chesterton 

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
~Lawrence Binyon from “For the Fallen” (1914)

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
~LtCol (Dr.) John McCrae from “In Flanders Fields”

When you go home tell them of us and say –
“For your tomorrow we gave our today”
~John Maxwell Edmonds from “The Kohima Epitaph” 

To all our U.S. veterans over the centuries – with deep appreciation and gratitude–for the freedoms you have defended on behalf of us all:

My father was one of the fortunate ones who came home, returning to a quiet farm life after three years serving in the Pacific with the Marines Corp from 1942 to 1945. For the first time I have been reading his letters home to my mother over the last few months, realizing how uncertain was their future together. Hundreds of thousands of his colleagues didn’t come home, dying on beaches and battlefields.  Tens of thousands more came home forever marked, through physical or psychological injury, by the experience of war.

We citizens must support and care for the men and women who have made the commitment to be on the front line for our freedom’s sake.

I’m unsure why the United States does not call November 11 Remembrance Day as the Commonwealth nations did at the WW1 Armistice. This is a day that demands much more than the more passive name Veterans’ Day represents.

This day calls all citizens who appreciate their freedoms to stop what they are doing and interrupt the routine rhythm of their lives. We are to remember in humble thankfulness the generations of military veterans who answered the call to defend their countries by sacrificing their time, resources, sometimes health and well being, and too often their lives.

Remembrance means never forgetting what it costs to defend freedom. It means acknowledging the millions who have given of themselves and continue to do so on our behalf. It means never ceasing to care. It means a commitment to provide resources needed for the military to remain strong and supported. It means unending prayers for safe return to family. It means we hold these men and women close in our hearts, always teaching the next generation about the sacrifices they made.

Most of all, it means being willing ourselves to become the sacrifice when called.

To you from failing hands we throw    
The torch; be yours to hold it high.    
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow…

Never an End to What’s Left Behind

“There’s never an end to dust
and dusting,” my aunt would say
as her rag, like a thunderhead,
scudded across the yellow oak
of her little house. There she lived
seventy years with a ball
of compulsion closed in her fist,
and an elbow that creaked and popped
like a branch in a storm. Now dust
is her hands and dust her heart.
There’s never an end to it.
~Ted Kooser “Carrie” from Flying at Night: Poems 1965-1985

My Great Aunt Marion was considered odd, no question about it.  She usually dressed in somber woolens, smelling faintly of mothballs and incense. Her straight gray hair was bobbed with bangs,  unfashionable for the wavy permanents of the fifties and the beehives of the sixties.  Aunt Marion was a second grade teacher all her life, never marrying,  and she lived for over 50 years in a spotless tiny apartment until the day she died in 1975.    She bequeathed what little she had to the church she had faithfully attended a few blocks away and was buried in the family plot on a windswept hill overlooking Puget Sound.

I was overseas when she died, and to my knowledge, none of the extended family attended her funeral.  In her retirement years she had become reclusive and remote.  It was clear visitors weren’t welcome so visits to her became rare.  In an effort to counteract that, I have annually visited her gravesite for the past 30+ years, paying homage to this aunt who remained an enigma in life and became even more mysterious in death.

She grew up in the early 20th century in an impoverished German immigrant family who relocated from Wisconsin to the northwest. Her father was gone most of the year running steamboats up the Yukon, leaving her mother to make do as a some time school teacher and full time mother. Her older brother dropped schooling early for the rough and ready life of the local logging camps but Marion finished teachers’ college at the Western Washington Normal School on the hill in Bellingham. She began her life’s work teaching 2nd grade a few miles away at Geneva Elementary School, and became the primary caretaker in her mother’s declining years.

Her shock over her brother’s marriage to a much younger teenage girl in 1917 created foment within an already fractious family that persisted down through the generations.  As the offspring of that union, my father tried to prove his worth to his judgmental aunt.  She was had a spiky and thorny personality, stern and unforgiving, but politely tolerated his existence though would never acknowledge his mother.  Family gatherings weren’t possible due to the ongoing bitter conflict between the two strong-willed ladies.

Though Marion was childless, her heart belonged to her many students as well as a number of children she sponsored through relief organizations in developing countries around the world.  Her most visible  joy came from her annual summer trip to one of those exotic countries to meet first hand the child she was sponsoring.  It seemed to fuel her until the next trip could be planned.  She visited Asia and India numerous times, as well as Central and South America.  It  provided the purpose that was missing in the daily routine of her life at home.

I moved to my great aunt’s community over three decades ago, 10 years after she had died.  I’d occasionally think of her as I drove past her old apartment building or the Methodist church she attended.  Several years ago, I noticed a new wing on the old church, modern, spacious and airy.  I commented on it to a co-worker who I knew attended that church.

He said the old church building had undergone significant remodeling over the years to update the wiring and plumbing, to create a more welcome sanctuary for worship and most recently to add a new educational wing for Sunday School and after school programs during the weekdays. As one of the council members in the church’s leadership, he commented that he was fortunate to attend a church equipped with financial resources to provide programs such as this in a struggling neighborhood that had more than its share of latch-key kids and single parents barely making do.   He mentioned an endowment from a bequest given over 40 years ago by a spinster schoolteacher in her will.  This lady had attended the church faithfully for years, and was somewhat legendary for her silent weekly presence in the same pew and that she rarely spoke to others in the church.  She arrived, sat in the same spot, and left right after the service, barely interacting.  Upon her death, she left her entire estate to the church, well over $1 million in addition to the deed to an oil well in Texas which has continued to flow and prosper over the past several decades.  The new wing was dedicated to her memory as it represented her expressed desire for her neighborhood.

I asked if her name was Marion and he stared at me baffled.  Yes, I knew her, I said.  Yes, she was a remarkable woman.  Yes, how proud she would be to see her legacy – what she had worked so hard for and then left behind — come to fruition.

There were times as I was growing up I wondered if my Great Aunt Marion had a secret lover somewhere, or if she led a double life as her life at home seemed so lonely and painful.  I know now that she did have a secret life.  She loved the children she had made her own and she lived plainly and simply in order to provide for others who had little.  Her extended family is better off having never inherited that money or an oil well.  It could have torn an already conflicted family apart and Marion knew, estranged from her only blood relatives,  her money would hurt us more than it would help.

Her full story has died with her.  Even so, I mourn her anew, marveling at what became of the dust of her, the legacy she chose to leave. 

Of this, I am deeply proud.

In Solitudes of Peace

There seemed a smell of autumn in the air
At the bleak end of night; he shivered there
In a dank, musty dug-out where he lay,
Legs wrapped in sand-bags,—lumps of chalk and clay
Spattering his face. Dry-mouthed, he thought, “To-day
We start the damned attack; and, Lord knows why,
Zero’s at nine; how bloody if I’m done in
Under the freedom of that morning sky!”
And then he coughed and dozed, cursing the din
.

Was it the ghost of autumn in that smell
Of underground, or God’s blank heart grown kind,
That sent a happy dream to him in hell?—
Where men are crushed like clods, and crawl to find
Some crater for their wretchedness; who lie
In outcast immolation, doomed to die
Far from clean things or any hope of cheer,
Cowed anger in their eyes, till darkness brims
And roars into their heads, and they can hear
Old childish talk, and tags of foolish hymns.

He sniffs the chilly air; (his dreaming starts).
He’s riding in a dusty Sussex lane
In quiet September; slowly night departs;
And he’s a living soul, absolved from pain.
Beyond the brambled fences where he goes
Are glimmering fields with harvest piled in sheaves,
And tree-tops dark against the stars grown pale;
Then, clear and shrill, a distant farm-cock crows;
And there’s a wall of mist along the vale
Where willows shake their watery-sounding leaves.
He gazes on it all, and scarce believes
That earth is telling its old peaceful tale;
He thanks the blessed world that he was born….
Then, far away, a lonely note of the horn.

They’re drawing the Big Wood! Unlatch the gate,
And set Golumpus going on the grass:
He knows the corner where it’s best to wait
And hear the crashing woodland chorus pass;
The corner where old foxes make their track
To the Long Spinney; that’s the place to be.
The bracken shakes below an ivied tree,
And then a cub looks out; and “Tally-o-back!”
He bawls, and swings his thong with volleying crack,—
All the clean thrill of autumn in his blood,
And hunting surging through him like a flood
In joyous welcome from the untroubled past;
While the war drifts away, forgotten at last.

Now a red, sleepy sun above the rim
Of twilight stares along the quiet weald,
And the kind, simple country shines revealed
In solitudes of peace, no longer dim.
The old horse lifts his face and thanks the light,
Then stretches down his head to crop the green.
All things that he has loved are in his sight;
The places where his happiness has been
Are in his eyes, his heart, and they are good.

* * * *  
Hark! there’s the horn: they’re drawing the Big Wood.
~Siegfried Sassoon “Break of Day”
(written about his memories as a WWI soldier)

When we are at war,
whether deep in the foxhole
hiding from the enemy,
or deeper yet in a hole of our own making,
trying to conceal our sins.

Amidst that mire and mud,
we dream of better days
and an untroubled past,
when the hunter and hunted was merely a game,
not life and death.

May we know the means of peace was brought to earth.

May we surface in mutual surrender,
begging for reprieve, longing for redemption.
May the solitudes of peace overwhelm
those who are angry and conflicted.
May we lift our faces up
and thank the Light.