It Needn’t Have Been So…

You are alive.
It needn’t have been so.
It wasn’t so once, and will not be forever.
But it is so now.

And what is it like:
to be alive in this one place of all places anywhere where life is?
Live a day of it and see.
Take any day and LIVE IT.
Nobody claims that it will be entirely painless, but no matter.

It is your birthday and there are many presents to open. 
The world is to be opened.
It is the first day because it has never been before
and the last day because it will never be again.

BE ALIVE.
~Frederick Buechner from The Alphabet of Grace

When I was very young, I would trace my finger over the long scar that curved along the front of my mother’s neck and ask her what happened. She would tell me her thyroid gland had been overworking so she had to have it removed before I was born. That’s all she had to say about that and I never thought to ask more. Somehow I knew, just as my knowing my father would not talk about his experience as a Marine in WWII, my mother was hiding more than her big scar under high collars or a pearl necklace.

Hers was a deeper scar I couldn’t see or touch.

However, my older sister – about five at the time – remembers my mother’s illness. Mom was a little over thirty when her hands began to tremble, her pulse raced and she was irritable with trouble sleeping. My parents were hoping for a second child, but unable to get pregnant. Once her doctor diagnosed thyrotoxicosis , Mom had the option to try a new medication that had been recently developed – propylthiouracil – meant to suppress the function of overactive thyroid glands.

It didn’t work for her and she felt worse. It caused more side effects and my mother’s symptoms grew so severe, she was unable to leave her bedroom due to severe anxiety and paranoia made worse by insomnia. My paternal grandmother came to help since my father needed to continue to work to support the family but there was little that could be done other than sedation to ease my mother’s symptoms. My sister recalls not seeing Mom for days, unnerved by the wailing she heard from the bedroom. From her description, I now wonder if Mom was experiencing the beginning of thyroid “storm” (extremely high thyroid levels) which is potentially life-threatening with severe physical and emotional side effects.

After Mom was hospitalized and her entire thyroid was removed, she was placed on thyroid hormone supplements to take daily for the rest of her life. It took months for her to recover and feel somewhat normal again. Her eventual hormonal stability resolved her infertility as well as most of her other symptoms. She remained chronically anxious and had heart palpitations and insomnia the rest of her life, like a residual stain on her sense of well-being, although she lived another 55 years. The trauma of how her illness affected my dad and sister was never fully resolved. They all suffered. I can understand why those months remained as hidden as my mom’s surgical scar.

I was born about two years later – the second baby they never expected could happen. My brother was born 20 months after me.

From my family’s suffering came the solace of new life.

So I nearly wasn’t.

I’m reminded on each birthday:
I needn’t have been here yet by the grace of God I am.
I need to BE ALIVE and LIVE THIS DAY because it will never be again.

This is a truth for us all to cling to.

Each day is a gift to be opened and savored.
Each day a first day, a last day, a great day – a birthday of amazing grace.

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:

Finding the Real Thing

I am hardly ever able
to sort through my memories
and come away whole
or untroubled.
It is difficult
to sift through the stones,
the weighty moments and know
which is rare gem,
which raw coal,
which worthless shale or slate.
So, one by one,
I drag them across the page
and when one cuts into the white,
leaves a trail of blood,
no matter how narrow the stream,
then I know
I’ve found the real thing,
the diamond,
one of the priceless gems
my pain produced.
“There! There,” I say,
“is a memory worth keeping.”
~Nikki Grimes “Poems”

I have tucked-away memories that still scratch my tender skin:
when they surface, I tend to bleed at the recollection,
feeling the familiar sting behind my eyelids and upside-down stomach.

Some people work hard to completely bury painful history,
unwilling to allow it back into the daylight to inflict even more harm.

I don’t welcome overwhelming memories back,
but when they come unbidden,
I grant them access only because I know,
as this happened to me long ago,
I will feel the sharp ache of sorrow
when I witness bleeding in another.

I was there too.
I am there with you now.
What happened was real but done.
Its healing leaves behind only
a thin line where the bleeding was.

Not the Same Darkness

We walked at the edge of the sea, the dog,
still young then, running ahead of us.
 
Few people.  Gulls.  A flock of pelicans
circled beyond the swells, then closed
their wings and dropped head-long
into the dazzle of light and sea.  You clapped
your hands; the day grew brilliant.
 
Later we sat at a small table
with wine and food that tasted of the sea.
 
A perfect day, we said to one another,
so that even when the day ended
and the lights of houses among the hills
came on like a scattering of embers,
we watched it leave without regret.
 
That night, easing myself toward sleep,
I thought how blindly we stumble ahead
with such hope, a light flares briefly—Ah, Happiness!
then we turn and go on our way again.
 
But happiness, too, goes on its way,
and years from where we were, I lie awake
in the dark and suddenly it returns—
that day by the sea, that happiness,

 
though it is not the same happiness,
not the same darkness.

~Peter Everwine, “The Day,” from New Letters

The beach at Tohoku, Japan where the tsunami hit in March 2011

The traumas of the past may revisit me in the night as they linger in the fringes of my mind, ready to creep back into my consciousness in times of stress. When I feel vulnerable and weak, I remind myself that past darkness must not overpower my nights. I try to call up different memories to push the sadness or fear back to the periphery.

So I return to my visits to the sea.

During those halcyon days, I was surrounded by beauty, of peacefulness, of family come together in warmth and closeness. Those times we’ve spent on the coast are treasures to open when I need them — breathing deeply of the sea, hearing the rhythm of the waves and feeling the cool breezes once again on my skin.

The memories themselves become precious reservoirs of happiness – readily renewed and refreshed. The darkness is overwhelmed, no longer overwhelming. Instead, it retreats from the shore of my mind like a wave pulls back into the depths of an endless sea.


Listening for Hoof Beats

Every night, no matter where I am
when I lie down, I turn
my back on half the world.

At home, it’s the east I ignore,
with its theatres and silverware,
as I face the adventurous west.

But when I’m on the road
in some hotel’s room 213 or 402
I could be pointed anywhere,

yet I hardly care as long as you
are there facing the other way
so we are defended in all degrees

and my left ear is pressing down
as if listening for hoof beats in the ground.

~Billy Collins “Sleeping on My Side” from Whale Day and Other Poems

It seems amazing we can actually sleep at all, knowing all the hazards out there beyond the bedroom walls

– whether it is pandemic viral particles floating in the air, or pollution from wildfires, or ozone layer depletion or “the-big-one-any-moment” earthquake, or an errant nuclear missile launch, or bands of roving bandits –

it is a wonder we can quiet our minds at all.

When I was about 8 years old, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I didn’t sleep for several days, fearful if I slept, then the world would end and me with it, without even knowing the bomb had hit. Somehow, my staying awake saved the world from destruction and no one, not one single person, ever thanked me for it.

There is always so terribly much to fear if you really think about it. We are constantly lying with our ears to the ground, listening for the hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, wondering how close they have come to our bedside.

These days I take comfort in knowing I don’t always need to be on high alert. I know, in fact, His eye is on the sparrow and He watches over me.

So I can sleep.

A Filigree of Nature

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It’s just a leaf. A damaged leaf at that,
clinging to a filbert tree ravaged by blight.
The leaf turns partially back upon itself,
riddled with holes, the traumatic result
of voracious insect appetites.

Damaged does not accurately describe
this leaf, the color of rich burgundy wine,
deep purple veins that branch to the tips
of its serrated edge. The holes open the leaf
to light and air, forming a filigree of nature,
an exquisite fragile beauty.

It makes me think of our own traumas,
how they open us, raw and hurting, humble us,
soften and expand us to the pain of others
and when we are most vulnerable we hold on,
weakened, but not necessarily damaged.

Perhaps it is then our scars become beautiful
and an inner loveliness shines through.
~Lois Parker Edstrom “Fragile Beauty”


–an ekphrastic poem based on my photo above,
soon to be published in her latest poetry book  –
thank you, Lois, for allowing me to share your beautiful words here

 

 

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Nature doth thus kindly heal every wound.
By the mediation of a thousand little mosses and fungi,
the most unsightly objects become radiant of beauty.
There seem to be two sides of this world, presented us at different times,
as we see things in growth or dissolution, in life or death.
And seen with the eye of the poet,
as God sees them,
all things are alive and beautiful.

~Henry David Thoreau (journal)

 

 

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…writing was one way to let something of lasting value emerge
from the pains and fears of my little, quickly passing life.
Each time life required me to take a new step into unknown spiritual territory,
I felt a deep, inner urge to tell my story to others–
Perhaps as a need for companionship but maybe, too,
out of an awareness that my deepest vocation
is to be a witness to the glimpses of God I have been allowed to catch.

~Henri Nouwen

 

 

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