Now All Breathless

 

Two days of an icy prairie fog
and every blade of grass, and twig,
and branch, and every stretch
of wire, barb, post and staple,
is a knot or a threat in a lace
of the purest white. To walk
is like finding your way through a wedding dress, the sky
inside it cold and satiny; 
no past, no future, just the now
all breathless. Then a red bird,
like a pinprick, changes everything.
~ Ted Kooser, “Hoarfrost” in Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems 

 

zipperbuttons

When the landscape emerges in the morning light frost-bitten, all iced up and white-crisp, I yearn for color, any color, to reappear with the day’s thawing out. My breath hangs like a cloud in the dry air as I crunch my way to the barn, living proof that I breathe for another day even though too many others right now can not.

We are a breathless people, wondering what comes next, feeling frozen and suspended in a pandemic and smoke-filled burning world.

We are a breathless people, wondering who or what will choke our life from us.

We are a breathless people, dressed as a bride in frosted satin, waiting at the altar for the Groom who bleeds red to save us from our fate.

And that alone changes everything.

Exists to be Lost

How swiftly the strained honey
of afternoon light
flows into darkness

and the closed bud shrugs off
its special mystery
in order to break into blossom:

as if what exists, exists
so that it can be lost
and become precious.
~Lisel Mueller “In Passing” from Alive Together

Each one of us is like a swelling bud hanging heavy and waiting on the stem — already but not quite yet.

Such is the late afternoon light of an October day.
There is an air of mystery in a honeyed moment of illumination
knowing something more is coming.

Not just the inevitable darkness when we all must sleep.
Not just opening wide to what we cannot yet understand.
No more peering through a glass darkly.

Breaking into blossom means losing what exists now,
this momentary glow of full ripeness,
to become part of the light itself.

Leaves and Lives Falling Away

If we could,
like the trees,
practice dying,
do it every year
just as something we do—
like going on vacation
or celebrating birthdays—
it would become
as easy a part of us
as our hair or clothing.


Someone would show us how
to lie down and fade away
as if in deepest meditation,
and we would learn
about the fine dark emptiness,
both knowing it and not knowing it,
and coming back would be irrelevant.


Whatever it is the trees know
when they stand undone,
surprisingly intricate,
we need to know also
so we can allow
that last thing
to happen to us
as if it were only
any ordinary thing,


leaves and lives
falling away, the spirit, complex,
waiting in the fine darkness
to learn which way
it will go.
~Grace Butcher, “Learning from Trees” from Poetry of Presence

If I were to die as a leaf,
I would want to change my clothes just bit by bit,
overnight oozing gradually to scarlet,
bleeding into the green a little bit more,
until I’m so unrecognizable,
I’ll seem brand new.

That would be ideal.

The reality is a fading to grey and brown,
my edges withered and torn,
bug-bitten with holes and weather-beaten bruised,
dangling and fearful of letting go
and so forgotten.

So I remember:
no one, not one, falls
without its Maker knowing.
No one, not one, dies
without being made brand new.

Spines at the Ready

Sheep will not eat it
nor horses nor cattle
unless they are starving.
Unchecked, it will sprawl over
pasture and meadow
choking the sweet grass
defeating the clover
until you are driven
to take arms against it
but if unthinking
you grasp it barehanded
you will need tweezers
to pick out the stickers.

Outlawed in most Northern
states of the Union
still it jumps borders.
Its taproot runs deeper
than underground rivers
and once it’s been severed
by breadknife or shovel
—two popular methods
employed by the desperate—
the bits that remain will
spring up like dragons’ teeth
a field full of soldiers
their spines at the ready.

Bright little bursts of
chrome yellow explode from
the thistle in autumn
when goldfinches gorge on
the seeds of its flower.
The ones left uneaten
dry up and pop open
and parachutes carry
their procreant power
to disparate venues
in each hemisphere
which is why there will always
be thistle next year.
~Maxine Kumin “Why There Will Always Be Thistle” from The Long Marriage. 

Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men
Thistles spike the summer air
And crackle open under a blue-black pressure.

Every one a revengeful burst
Of resurrection, a grasped fistful
Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up

From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.
They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.
Every one manages a plume of blood.

Then they grow grey, like men.
Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear,
Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.

~Ted Hughes “Thistles”

Reluctantly the summer goes
In a cloud of thistledown.
~Beverly Ashour from “September”

It is armored, it is deeply rooted, it is relentless.
Highly ambitious, it produces downy tasty dancing seeds ready to soar far. Generation after generation of thistles persist due to this delicate ballerinas’ flight to the next horizon.

I should be strive to be as persistent, as rooted, as determined, yet as fluffy and tender under my defensive prickles and spines.

And then, may I softly dance in the journey to the next life.

We Shall All Be Changed

Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
Built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs | they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, | wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle ín long | lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous | ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; | in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed | dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks | treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, | nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest | to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, | his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indig | nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, | death blots black out; nor mark
                            Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time | beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, | joyless days, dejection.
                            Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
                            In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
                            Is immortal diamond.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection”

Behold, I show you a mystery;
We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
In a moment, in a twinkling of an eye;
at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound,
and the dead shall be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed,
For this corruptible must put on immortality

1Corinthians 15:51-53

In a matter of minutes this morning,
mere clouds changed above the rising sun;
its fire started low, sparked into dazzling flames,
then became a beacon, lit from within and without
and all around thus transformed.

So we are spared from our destiny with ashes
by such Light.

So Christ, becoming man
and rising — as He did,
and risen as He is,
changes us forever,
in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye.



A Foot in the Door

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air. 

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make roo
m.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves
Our kind multiplies

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth. 
Our foot’s in the door.
~Sylvia Plath from “Mushroom”

This overnight overture into the light,
a parturition of “ink caps” after a shower.
As if seed had been sprinkled on the manure pile,
they sprout three inch stalks
still stretching at dawn,
topped by dew-catching caps and umbrellas.

Nearly translucent as glass,
already curling at the edges in the morning light,
by noon melting into ooze
by evening complete deliquescence,
withered and curling back
into the humus
which birthed them hours before.

It shall be repeated
again and again,
this birth from unworthy soil,
this brief and shining life in the sun,
this folding, curling and collapse
to die back to dust and dung.

Inedible, yet so Chrisincredible,
they rise beautiful
and worthy
as is the way of things
that never give up
once a foot’s in the door.

The Cheeks of Blossom

Lined with light
the twigs are stubby arrows.
A gilded trunk writhes
Upward from the roots,
from the pit of the black tentacles.

In the book of spring
a bare-limbed torso
is the first illustration.

Light teaches the tree
to beget leaves,
to embroider itself all over
with green reality,
until summer becomes
its steady portrait
and birds bring their lifetime
to the boughs.

Then even the corpse
light copies from below
may shimmer, dreaming it feels
the cheeks of blossom.
~May Swenson “April Light”

This April we are surrounded by corpse light:
the threat of untimely death, so we distance ourselves
one from the other, awaiting the “all clear”
which may be a long time coming ~

We have already forgotten the unprecedented illumination
that walked from the tomb on a bright Sabbath morning
to guarantee that
we people,
we who are no more than bare twigs and stubs,
we who feel hardly alive,
are now begotten green,
ready to burst into blossom,
our cheeks pink with life,
promising future fruitfulness.

Cruel April

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

 What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.


I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
~T.S. Eliot from “The Wasteland

Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
1 John 3:2

We do not want to think of ourselves as the dust we were and the dust we will become but the last several months have changed that. We have become hosts to a virus that can transform us to dust. 

We thought we were living fully before; now, in our isolation, we have to examine what a full life really means, mixing our memories and desires.

Dust, like the relentless emerging life of April,
is so cruel~
it reminds us
of what could have been,
as life rises miraculous
from the dead.

We become nothing more than a handful of dust…
yet the Creator lifts us up in the palm of His hand, and blows on us:
we then breathe and pulse and weep and bleed.

We shall be like Him,
part of his Hand,
breath of His breath,
for we shall see Him as He is.

Bright Wings

Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars

Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.

Sometimes, instead, I stir myself
Into a universe still young,
Still warm as blood:

No outer space, just space,
The light of all the not yet stars
Drifting like a bright mist,
And all of us, and everything
Already there
But unconstrained by form.

And sometime it’s enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ancestral bones:

To walk across the cobble fields
Of our discarded skulls,
Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
Thinking: whatever left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.
~Rebecca Elson “Antidotes to Fear of Death”

We live out our earthly lives within these shells we call bodies, aware we were made intentionally and uniquely by our Creator in His image. Every part of us has purpose and meaning, down to the smallest corpuscle and the longest bone. We are His treasure, so much so He came to walk with us to preserve us by looking like, feeling like and suffering like us.

Yet we weaken over time, as this is temporal housing only. Even a small packet of viral RNA can cause us to fade and become dry husks.

Easter means it isn’t over. Death is overcome, the tethers of earth are broken, these husks become bright wings that soar as treasures lit from within.

…nature is never spent;   
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went   
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent   
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “God’s Grandeur”

Beauty, Mystery and Benediction

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here; he has risen!”
Luke 24: 5-6

Since this moment (the resurrection), the universe is no longer what it was;  nature has received another meaning; history is transformed and you and I are no more, and should not be anymore, what we were before.

Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted.”
~Paul Tillich, American theologian

So what do I believe actually happened that morning on the third day after he died?
…I speak very plainly here…

He got up.  He said, “Don’t be afraid.”

Love is the victor.  Death is not the end.  The end is life.  His life and our lives through him, in him.

Existence has greater depths of beauty, mystery, and benediction than the wildest visionary has ever dared to dream. 

Christ our Lord has risen.
~Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse,
the molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall…

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.
~John Updike from “Seven Stanzas at Easter”

From the far star points of his pinned extremities, 
cold inched in—black ice and squid ink— 
till the hung flesh was empty. 
Lonely in that void even for pain, 
he missed his splintered feet, 
the human stare buried in his face. 
He ached for two hands made of meat 
he could reach to the end of. 
In the corpse’s core, the stone fist 
of his heart began to bang 
on the stiff chest’s door, and breath spilled 
back into that battered shape. Now 

it’s your limbs he comes to fill, as warm water shatters at birth, rivering every way.
~Mary Karr “Descending Theology: The Resurrection”

Our flesh is so weak, so temporary,
as ephemeral as a dew drop on a petal
yet with our earthly vision
it is all we know of ourselves
and it is what we trust knowing
of Him.

He was born as our flesh, from our flesh.
He walked and hungered and thirsted and slept
as our flesh.
He died, His/our flesh hanging in tatters,
blood spilling freely
breath fading to nought,
speaking those last Words
our ears can never forget.

Then He got up,
to walk and hunger and thirst alongside us
–flesh of His flesh–
here among us He is risen
–flesh of our flesh–
married forever
as the Church:
a fragile, flawed
and everlasting body
that will rise, once again, as He did.