A Still Room to Remember

Here, the bells are silent, blown glass hung from
branches of pine whose fragrance fills the room.
It’s December, and the world’s run out of color.
Darkness at five seems absolute outside
the nine square panes of glass. But inside
hundreds of small white lights reflect off
fragile ornaments handed down from before
the war. They’re all Shiny-Brite, some solid balls—
hot pink, lime green, turquoise, gold—some striped
and flocked. This night is hard obsidian, but these glints
pierce the gloom, along with their glittery echoes, the stars.
We inhale spruce, its resinous breath: the hope of spring,
the memory of summer. Every day, another peal
on the carillon of light.

~Barbara Crooker, “Bells” from Some Glad Morning

The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year,
and trying to figure out where we have come from
and where we are going to,
for sifting through the things we have done
and the things we have left undone

for a clue to who we are and who,
for better or worse, we are becoming.

We cling to the present out of wariness of the past.
But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need
—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—
to enter that still room within us all
where the past lives on as a part of the present,
where the dead are alive again,
where we are most alive ourselves to turnings
and to where our journeys have brought us.

The name of the room is Remember—
the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart,
we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.
~Frederick Buechner
“A Room Called Remember”

In 1959, when I was five years old, my father left his high school agriculture teaching position for a new supervisor position with the state. Our family moved from a large 3 story farm house in a rural community to a 1950’s newer rambler style home just outside the city limits of the state capitol.  It was a big adjustment to move to a much smaller house without a basement or upper story, no garage, and no large haybarn nor chicken coop.  It meant most things we owned didn’t make the move with us.

The rambler had two side by side mirror image rooms as the primary central living space between the kitchen on one side and the hallway to the bedrooms on the other.  The living room could only be entered through the front door and the family room was accessed through the back door with a shared sandstone hearth in the center, containing a fireplace in each room.  The only opening between the rooms had a folding door shut most of the year.  In December, the door was opened to accommodate a Christmas tree, so it sat partially in the living room and depending on its generous width, spilled over into the family room.  That way it was visible from both rooms, and didn’t take up too much floor space.

The living room, because it contained the only carpeting in the house, and our “best” furniture,  was strictly off-limits for us kids. In order to keep our two matching sectional knobby gray fabric sofas,  a green upholstered chair and gold crushed velvet covered love seat in pristine condition, the room was to be avoided unless we had company. The carpet was never to develop a traffic pattern, there would be no food, beverage, or pet ever allowed in that room, and the front door was not to be used unless a visitor arrived.  The hearth never saw a fire lit on that side because of the potential of messy ashes or smoke smell. This was not a room for laughter, arguments or games and certainly not for toys. The chiming clock next to the hearth, wound with weighted pine cones on the end of chains, called out the hours without an audience.

One week before Christmas, a tree was cut down to fit in the space where it could overflow into the family room.  I particularly enjoyed decorating the “family room” side of the tree, using all my favorite ornaments that were less likely to break if they fell on the linoleum floor on that side of the door.

It was as if the Christmas tree became divided, with a “formal” side in the living room and a “real life” face on the other side where the living (and all that goes along with that) was actually taking place.

The tree straddled more than just two rooms.  Each year that tree’s branches reached out to shelter a family that was slowly, almost imperceptibly, falling apart like fir needles dropping to the floor, soon to be swept away.

Each year since, our Christmas tree, bearing those old ornaments from my childhood, reminds me of that still room of memories.  No longer am I wary of the past, and as I sweep up the fir needles that inevitably drop, I no longer weep.

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Benign

“They’re benign,” the radiologist says,
pointing to specks on the x ray
that look like dust motes
stopped cold in their dance.
His words take my spine like flame.
I suddenly love
the radiologist, the nurse, my paper gown,
the vapid print on the dressing room wall.
I pull on my radiant clothes.
I step out into the Hanging Gardens, the Taj Mahal,
the Niagara Falls of the parking lot.

~Jo McDougall, “Mammogram” from In the Home of the Famous Dead: Collected Poems

Outside the house the wind is howling
and the trees are creaking horribly.
This is an old story
with its old beginning,
as I lay me down to sleep.
But when I wake up, sunlight
has taken over the room.
You have already made the coffee
and the radio brings us music
from a confident age. In the paper
bad news is set in distant places.
Whatever was bound to happen
in my story did not happen.
But I know there are rules that cannot be broken.
Perhaps a name was changed.
A small mistake. Perhaps
a woman I do not know
is facing the day with the heavy heart
that, by all rights, should have been mine.

~Lisel Mueller “In November”

It does not escape me,
especially on mammogram days~~

(although I wake every day knowing this):

an earthquake happened somewhere else,
a war left people homeless and lifeless,
a windstorm leveled a town,
a drunk driver destroyed a family,
a fire left a house in ashes,
a famine caused children to starve,
a flood ravaged a village,
a devastating diagnosis darkened
someone’s remaining days.

No mistake has been made,
yet I wake knowing this part of my story
has not yet visited me,
the heavy heart
that could have been mine
is spared again,
still beating,
still breaking,
still bleeding,
still believing
the radiance from this good news is real
and once again happened today.

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Holding Back My Heart

The others bent their heads and started in.
Confused, I asked my neighbor
to explain—a sturdy, bright-cheeked girl
who brought raw milk to school from her family’s
herd of Holsteins. Ann had a blue bookmark,
and on it Christ revealed his beating heart,
holding the flesh back with His wounded hand.
Ann understood division. . . .

Miss Moran sprang from her monumental desk
and led me roughly through the class
without a word. My shame was radical
as she propelled me past the cloakroom
to the furnace closet, where only the boys
were put, only the older ones at that.
The door swung briskly shut.

The warmth, the gloom, the smell
of sweeping compound clinging to the broom
soothed me. I found a bucket, turned it
upside down, and sat, hugging my knees.
I hummed a theme from Haydn that I knew
from my piano lessons. . . .
and hardened my heart against authority.
And then I heard her steps, her fingers
on the latch. She led me, blinking
and changed, back to the class.

~Jane Kenyon “Trouble with Math in a One-room Country School”

I avoided all potential trouble in school by avoiding the trouble-makers.
I never was disciplined or even looked at crossly by a teacher. They loved me and I wanted badly to be loved by them.

I looked away whenever another student got in trouble; I didn’t want to be a lookie-loo enjoying the travails of another child. It was painful for me to see another kid disciplined. I know I would have been crushed to be publicly called out, sent to the hallway, name on the board, or worse yet, banished to the principal.

So my heart broke when I saw another child cry,
or be defiant or be removed from class.
I knew I couldn’t fix it or them.
I knew I couldn’t help the teacher to like them.
I knew some kids have their own secret pain they endure.
I knew it would change me to know what their pain felt like.
So I just imagined being good and compliant and rule-abiding and lovable.

Forever.

Of course, I wasn’t and I’m not, sixty years later.
I too changed, just like everyone else.
It still makes me sad to think how much we change, how many hearts we break,
how our innocence is so fragile and as a result, how badly we need forgiveness
so we can learn to love ourselves as we are loved.

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A Benediction of Mourning

The waning October moon reluctantly rose,
pulling back from the full globe of a few nights before.

I drive a night darkened country road, white lines sweeping past,
aware of advancing frost in the evening haze,
anxious to return home to fireplace light.

Nearing a familiar corner, a stop sign loomed,
to the right, a rural cemetery sits silently expectant.

Open iron gates and tenebrous headstones,
in the middle path, incongruous, a car’s headlights beam bright.
I slowed, thinking: lovers or vandals would seek inky cover of night.

Instead, these lights illuminate a lone figure, kneeling graveside,
one hand resting heavily on a stone, head bowed in prayer.

A stark moment of solitary sorrow,
invisible grieving of the heart
focused by twin beams.

A benediction of mourning; light piercing their blackness,
as gentle fingertips trace the engraved letters of a beloved name.

An uneasy witness, I withdraw as if touched myself
and drive on into the night, struggling to see
through the thickening mist of my eyes and the road.

Angel of Grief–Stanford University

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Yielding to Change

I went out to cut a last batch of zinnias this
morning from the back fencerow and got my shanks
chilled for sure: furrowy dark gray clouds with
separating fringes of blue sky-grass: and the dew

beaded up heavier than the left-overs of the rain:
in the zinnias, in each of two, a bumblebee 
stirring in slow motion. Trying to unwind
the webbed drug of cold, buzzing occasionally but

with a dry rattle: bees die with the burnt honey 
at their mouths, at least: the fact’s established:
it is not summer now and the simmering buzz is out of 
heat: the zucchini blossoms falling show squash

overgreen with stunted growth: the snapdragons have
suckered down into a blossom or so: we passed
into dark last week the even mark of day and night
and what we hoped would stay we yield to change.
~A.R. Ammons  “Equinox”

We yield now
to the heaviness of the change;
a slowing of our walk
and the darkening of our days.

It is time:
day and night compete,
and neither wins.

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The Fallen Works of Light

The summer ends, and it is time
To face another way. Our theme
Reversed, we harvest the last row
To store against the cold, undo
The garden that will be undone.
We grieve under the weakened sun
To see all earth’s green fountains dried,
And fallen all the works of light.
You do not speak, and I regret
This downfall of the good we sought
As though the fault were mine. I bring
The plow to turn the shattering
Leaves and bent stems into the dark,
From which they may return. At work,
I see you leaving our bright land,
The last cut flowers in your hand.
~Wendell Berry “The Summer Ends” from A Timbered Choir.

I want to memorize it all before it changes
as the light weakens from
the sun shifting from north to south,
balancing on the fulcrum of our country road at equinox.

The dying back of the garden leaves and vines reveals
what lies unharvested beneath,
so I gather in urgency, not wanting it to go to waste.

We part again from you, Summer –
your gifts seemed endless
until you ended –
a reminder that someday, so must I.

I sit silenced and brooding, waiting for what comes next.

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We May Or Might Never, Meet Here Again

My great grandfather had some fields in North Carolina
and he willed those fields to his sons and his sons
willed them to their sons so there is a two-hundred-year-old
farm house on that land where several generations
of my family fried chicken and laughed and hung

their laundry beneath the trees. There are things you
know when your family has lived close to the earth:
things that make magic seem likely. Dig a hole on the new
of the moon and you will have dirt to throw away
but dig one on the old of the moon and you won’t have

enough to fill it back up again: I learned this trick
in the backyard of childhood with my hands. If you know
the way the moon pulls at everything then you can feel
it on the streets of a city where you cannot see the sky.

I may walk the streets
of this century and make my living in an office
but my blood is old farming blood and my true
self is underground like a potato.

I have taken root in my grandfather’s
fields: I am hanging my laundry beneath his trees.
~Faith Shearin from “Fields”

It just isn’t possible to completely take me off the farm – I have generations of farmers extending back on both sides of my family, so I have dug myself a hole here, resting easy in the soil like a potato and ventured out only as I needed to in order to actually make a living.

A gathering of all my vaccinated clinic colleagues came to our farm yesterday to help me celebrate my retiring from office life. They brought beautiful flowers, plentiful food, kind and restoring words, thirty year old photos and lovely parting gifts, as well as my singing doctor buddy sharing a sea shanty about bittersweet parting. It is helping ease my sorrow at leaving regular doctoring behind, knowing there are more days to come, more time to grow things in the ground, more blissing out over sunrises and sunsets and more hanging laundry on the clothesline.

My dear friends know where they can find me – on the hill above our farm – we may or might never, meet here again but it was such a fine time together yesterday, thank you!

Kind Friend and Companions, Come join me in rhyme,
Come lift up your voices, In chorus with mine,
Come lift up your voices, all grief to refrain,
For we may or might never, all meet here again
Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass,
Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass,
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may or might never, all meet here again
Here’s a health to the dear lass, that I love so well,
For her style and her beauty, sure none can excel,
There’s a smile on her countenance, as she sits on my knee,
There’s no man in this wide world, as happy as me,
Here’s a health to the company, and one to my lass
Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass,
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may or might never, all meet here again,
Our ship lies at anchor, she’s ready to dock,
I wish her safe landing, without any shock,
If ever I should meet you, by land or by sea,
I will always remember, your kindness to me,
Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass,
Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass,
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may or might never, all meet here again
Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass,
Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass,
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may or might never, all meet here again

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I Pray Watch Over Them

Echo of the clocktower, footstep
in the alleyway, sweep
of the wind sifting the leaves. 


Jeweller of the spiderweb, connoisseur
of autumn’s opulence, blade of lightning
harvesting the sky. 

Keeper of the small gate, choreographer
of entrances and exits, midnight
whisper travelling the wires. 

Seducer, healer, deity, or thief,
I will see you soon enough–


in the shadow of the rainfall, 
in the brief violet darkening a sunset —

but until then I pray watch over him
as a mountain guards its covert ore 

and the harsh falcon its flightless young.
~Dana Gioia “The Prayer” (written in memory of his infant son who died of SIDS)

When we think of those who wait for us on the other side,
including our baby lost before birth 38 years ago…

We pray those from whom we are parted are loved as we have loved.

I know God will watch over all these reunions;
He knows the moment when our fractured hearts
heal whole once again.

I will see you soon enough, sweet one. Soon enough.

photo by Kate Steensma

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The Soul’s Sap Quivers

To think that this meaningless thing was ever a rose,
Scentless, colourless, this!
Will it ever be thus (who knows?)
Thus with our bliss,
If we wait till the close?


Though we care not to wait for the end, there comes the end
Sooner, later, at last,
Which nothing can mar, nothing mend:

An end locked fast,
Bent we cannot re-bend.

~Christina Rossetti “Summer is Ended”

The soul’s sap quivers. There is no earth smell
Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time
But not in time’s covenant. Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable Zero summer?

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;


And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

~T.S. Eliot – lines taken from “Little Gidding”

As a grade school child in November 1963, I learned the import of the U.S. flag being lowered to half mast in response to the shocking and violent death of our President. The lowering of the flag was so rare when I was growing up, it had dramatic effect on all who passed by — our soul’s sap quivers — something very sad had happened to our country, something or someone had tragically ended, warranting our silence and our stillness.

For twenty years since 9/11/01, our flag has spent significant time at half mast, so much so that I’m befuddled instead of contemplative, puzzling over what the latest loss might be as there are so many, sometimes all happening in the same time frame.  We no longer are silenced by this gesture of honor and respect and we certainly are not stilled, personally and corporately instigating and suffering the same mistakes against humanity over and over again.

We are so bent. Will we ever be mended again?

Eliot wrote the prescient words of the Four Quartets in the midst of the WWII German bombing raids that destroyed people and neighborhoods. Perhaps he sensed the destruction he witnessed would not be the last time in history that evil visits the innocent, leaving them in ashes. There would be so many more losses to come, not least being the horror of 9/11/01.

There remains so much more sadness to be borne, such abundance of grief that our world has become overwhelmed and stricken. Yet Eliot was right: we have yet to live in a Zero summer of endless hope and fruitfulness, of spiritual awakening and understanding.  Where is it indeed? When will rise again the summer Rose of beauty and fragrance?

We must return, as people of faith to Eliot’s still point to which we are called on a day such as today.  We must be stilled; we must be silenced. We must grieve the losses of this turning world and pray for release from the suffering we cause and we endure.  Only in the asking, only in the kneeling down and pleading, are we surrounded by God’s unbounded grace and His Rose may bloom recognizable again.  

“There Are No Words” written on 9/11/2001
by Kitty Donohoe

there are no words there is no song
is there a balm that can heal these wounds that will last a lifetime long
and when the stars have burned to dust
hand in hand we still will stand because we must

in one single hour in one single day
we were changed forever something taken away
and there is no fire that can melt this heavy stone
that can bring back the voices and the spirits of our own

all the brothers, sisters and lovers all the friends that are gone
all the chairs that will be empty in the lives that will go on
can we ever forgive though we never will forget
can we believe in the milk of human goodness yet

we were forged in freedom we were born in liberty
we came here to stop the twisted arrows cast by tyranny
and we won’t bow down we are strong of heart
we are a chain together that won’t be pulled apart

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Supposing a Tree Fell

“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?”

“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought.

Piglet was comforted by this.
~A.A. Milne from The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh

our friends’ bedroom after a tree fell through their roof in a windstorm – thankfully, no one was hurt

It has been a long 18 months of dwelling deeply
in all kinds of “supposes” and “what ifs”
because people were being crushed by a virus
right and left.

I understand this kind of thinking,
particularly when “in the moment” tragedies,
(like a Florida condo building collapsing in the middle of the night)
play out real-time in the palm of our hand
in front of our eyes
and we feel helpless to do anything
but watch it unfold.

Those who know me well
know I can fret and worry
better than most.
Medical training only makes this worse.
I’m taught to think catastrophically.
That is what I have done for a living –
to always be ready for the worse case scenario
and simply assume it will happen.

Sometimes it does happen
and no amount of wishing it away will work.

When I rise, too often sleepless,
to face a day of uncertainty
as we all do ~
after careful thought,
I reach for the certainty I am promised
over the uncertainty I can only imagine:

What is my only comfort in life and in death? 
That I am not my own, but belong
—body and soul, in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

“Supposing it didn’t” — says our Lord
(and we are comforted by this)
but even if it did … even if it did –
as awful things sometimes do –
we are never abandoned.

He is with us always.

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