I Wonder What I Owe

At almost four in the afternoon, the
wind picks up and sifts through the golden woods.

The tree trunks bronze and redden, branches
on fire in the heavy sky that flickers

with the disappearing sun. I wonder
what I owe the fading day, why I keep

my place at this dark desk by the window
measuring the force of the wind, gauging

how long a certain cloud will hold that pink
edge that even now has slipped into gray?

Quickly the lights are appearing, a lamp
in every window and nests of stars

on the rooftops. Ladders lean against the hills
and people climb, rung by rung, into the night.
~Joyce Sutphen “On the Shortest Days” from Modern Love & Other Myths.

While spending my day at my desk talking to faces on a screen,
as I will today and every day,
the names and stories and symptoms change every half hour.
I sometimes glance up and out my window to the world beyond,
concerned not to break eye contact.

I want to say:
don’t you know this darkness surrounding you won’t last,
while this day is fading
you can turn on the light that you were given
to find your way out of this.

I wonder if I owe it to you to tell you
when I was young and afraid and away from home
I didn’t believe the light was there either,
or it wouldn’t turn on, or it burned out so I
I felt swallowed by the darkness.

Then someone gave me a ladder to climb out
and lit my light so I could see where I was going.

Here I am now,
handing you a working light and a sturdy ladder
and telling you how to use them.



I Don’t Mean to Make You Cry

I don’t mean to make you cry.
I mean nothing, but this has not kept you
From peeling away my body, layer by layer,

The tears clouding your eyes as the table fills
With husks, cut flesh, all the debris of pursuit.
Poor deluded human: you seek my heart.

Hunt all you want. Beneath each skin of mine
Lies another skin: I am pure onion–pure union
Of outside and in, surface and secret core.

Look at you, chopping and weeping…
~Suji Kwock Kim from “Monologue for a Onion”

It’s true it can make you weep
to peel them, to unfurl and to tease   
from the taut ball first the brittle,   
caramel-colored and decrepit
papery outside layer, the least

recent the reticent onion
wrapped around its growing body,   
for there’s nothing to an onion
but skin, and it’s true you can go on   
weeping as you go on in, through   
the moist middle skins, the sweetest

and thickest, and you can go on   
in to the core, to the bud-like,   
acrid, fibrous skins densely   
clustered there, stalky and in-
complete, and these are the most   
pungent

~William Matthews from “Onions”

I would never scold the onion
for causing tears.
It is right that tears fall
for something small and forgotten.
How at meal, we sit to eat,
commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma
but never on the translucence of onion,
now limp, now divided,
or its traditionally honorable career:
For the sake of others,
disappear.

~Naomi Shihab Nye, from “The Traveling Onion”
from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems.

Onion,
luminous flask,
your beauty formed
petal by petal,
crystal scales expanded you
and in the secrecy of the dark earth
your belly grew round with dew.
Under the earth
the miracle
happened
and when your clumsy
green stem appeared,
and your leaves were born
like swords
in the garden,
the earth heaped up her power
showing your naked transparency…

…You make us cry without hurting us.
I have praised everything that exists,
but to me, onion, you are
more beautiful than a bird
of dazzling feathers,
heavenly globe, platinum goblet,
unmoving dance
of the snowy anemone

and the fragrance of the earth lives
in your crystalline nature.

~Pablo Neruda from “Ode to the Onion”

Everything smells of “eau de onion” here in the kitchen as the onions are brought in from our late summer garden to be stored or dehydrated and frozen for winter soups and stews.

This is weepy business, but these are good tears like I spill over the whistled Greensleeves theme from the old “Lassie” TV show, or during any childrens’ choir song, or by simply watching videos of our grandchildren who are quarantined so far away from our arms.

It takes almost nothing these days to make me weep, so onions are a handy excuse, allowing my tears to flow without explanation:

I weep over the headlines.
I weep over how changed life is and for the sadness of the stricken.
I weep over how messy things can get between people who don’t listen to one another or who misinterpret what they think they hear.
I weep knowing we all have layers and layers of skin that appear tough on the outside, but as you peel gently or even ruthlessly cut them away, the layers get more and more tender until you reach the throbbing heart of us.

We tend to hide our hearts out of fear of being hurt, crying out in pain.

Like an onion, each one of us exists to make the day a bit better, the meal more savory, to enhance the flavors of all who are mixed into this melting pot together. We aren’t meant to stand alone, but to disappear into the stew, and be sorely missed if we are absent.

So very dish needs an onion, and for the sake of the dish, every onion vanishes in the process.

No, I don’t mean to make you cry
as you peel my layers away,
gently, one by one,
each more tender until you reach my heart.
Chop away at me if you must
but weep the good tears, the ones that mean
we weep for the sake of our meal together:
you eating and drinking,
and me – consumed.

Stalking the Gaps Together

nch20141

The gaps are the thing.
The gaps are the spirit’s one home,
the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean
that the spirit can discover itself like a once-blind man unbound.
The gaps are the clefts in the rock where you cower

to see the back parts of God;
they are fissures between mountains

and cells the wind lances through,
the icy narrowing fiords splitting the cliffs of mystery.


Go up into the gaps.
If you can find them;
they shift and vanish too.
Stalk the gaps.
Squeak into a gap in the soil,
turn, and unlock
—more than a maple—
a universe.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

nch2014

I think there is a yawning gaping separation threatening us right now.

I feel a fissuring gap in my life. People who have eaten at our table, shared our home, who we have worshiped alongside – are now estranged, no longer trusting. This separation is buoyed by the chill wind of politics blowing bitterly where once there was warmth and nurture and caring.

We disagree.

We no longer understand one another. We no longer listen to one another.
The argument has become more important than the connection.

How can we even allow these gaps between us to develop?
How do we fill these fissures with enough of ourselves
so something new and vital can grow?
How can we stalk the gaps together, knowing how we are all exposed?

Not one of us has the corner on the Truth; if we are honest with ourselves and each other, we cower together for safety in the cracks of this world, watching helplessly as the backside of God passes by too holy for us to gaze upon. He places us there together for our own good. I see you there alongside me.

We are weak together. We are dependent together. We need each other.

Only His Word – nothing else –
can fill the open gaping hollow between us.
His Grace is great enough
to fill every hole
bridge every gap
bring hope to the hopeless
plant seeds for the future
and restore us wholly to each other.

Let it be so. Oh please let it be.

sunset722142

Bequeathing What We Never Owned To Begin With

The lawyer told him to write a letter
to accompany the will, to prevent
potential discord over artifacts
valued only for their sentiment.

His wife treasures a watercolor by
her father; grandmama’s spoon stirs
their oatmeal every morning. Some
days, he wears his father’s favorite tie.

He tries to think of things that
could be tokens of his days:
binoculars that transport
bluebirds through his cataracts

a frayed fishing vest with
pockets full of feathers brightly
tied, the little fly rod he can still
manipulate in forest thickets,

a sharp-tined garden fork,
heft and handle fit for him,
a springy spruce kayak paddle,
a retired leather satchel.

He writes his awkward note,
trying to dispense with grace
some well-worn clutter easily
discarded in another generation.

But what he wishes to bequeath
are items never owned: a Chopin
etude wafting from his wife’s piano
on the scent of morning coffee

seedling peas poking into April,
monarch caterpillars infesting
milkweed leaves, a light brown
doe alert in purple asters

a full moon rising in October,
hunting-hat orange in ebony sky,
sunlit autumn afternoons that flutter
through the heart like falling leaves.

~Raymond Byrnes “Personal Effects” from Waters Deep

We’ve seen families break apart over the distribution of the possessions of the deceased. There can be hurt feelings, resentment over perceived slights, arguments over who cared most and who cared least.

Thankfully, that didn’t happen with our parents’ belongings. There had been a slow giving away process as their health failed and they needed to move from larger spaces to smaller spaces. Even so, no one was eager to take care of the things that had no particular monetary or sentimental value. We still have boxes and boxes of household and personal items sitting unopened in storage on our farm for over a decade. Each summer I think I’ll start the sorting process but I don’t. My intentions are good but my follow-through is weak.

So my husband and I have said to each other and our children that we don’t want to leave behind stuff which ultimately has little meaning in a generation or two. We need now to do the work it takes to make sure we honor that promise.

There is so much we would rather bequeath than just stuff we own. It can’t be stored in boxes or outlined in our wills: these are precious possessions that don’t take up space. Instead, we bequeath our love of simple everyday blessings, while passing down our faith in God to future generations.

May our memories be kept alive through stories about the people we tried to be in this life, told to our grandchildren and their children, with much humor and a few tears – that would be the very best legacy of all.

The Storm Inside and Out

Beneath our clothes, our reputations, our pretensions,
beneath our religion or lack of it,
we are all vulnerable both to the storm without
and to the storm within.
~Frederick Buechner – from Telling the Truth

We are so complicit and compliant
in pleasant and peaceful appearance,
sitting in silence allowing
our inner storm to stay well hidden;
if called and compelled to face wrongs boldly,
the tempest can no longer be contained.
Silence in the face of evil
must itself be shattered,
even the rocks will cry out,
as our storm spills forth
speaking the truth.

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil:
God will not hold us guiltless.
Not to speak is to speak.
Not to act is to act.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We all are feeling the unpredictability of the state of the climate all around us:

heavy damaging winds, devastating hale storms, thunder and lightening, sweaty sunny middays, torrential unpredictable showers, ankle-deep mud, horrible forest fires.

Protests, violence, conspiracy theories, people distrusting and disrespecting others, name-calling, and plenty of deafening silence.

And inside my own cranium:

words that fly out too quickly, anxiety mixed with a hint of anger, too easy tears, searing frustration, feeling immobilized by the daily muck and mire of the state of the world today.

I have no excuse for acting like moody March, October, December and August within a span of a few hours. I should not be so easily forgiven or unburdened. I end up lying awake at night with regrets, composing apologies, and wanting to hide under a rock until the storms inside and outside blow over.

But in the midst of all the extremes, while the pandemic, the climate change, the racial injustice storms keep raging, a miracle is wrought:
it can only happen when brilliant light exposes weeping from heavy laid clouds, like the rainbow that dropped from heaven last week to touch the earth right in our backyard, only a few feet from our barn.

God cries too. His wept tears light the sky in a promise of forgiveness while we tear each other apart.
He assures us: this storm too will pass.

He assures us because He knows all too well our desperate need for it.

Dragging Summer Away

August rushes by like desert rainfall,
A flood of frenzied upheaval,
Expected,
But still catching me unprepared.
Like a match flame
Bursting on the scene,
Heat and haze of crimson sunsets.
Like a dream
Of moon and dark barely recalled,
A moment,
Shadows caught in a blink.
Like a quick kiss;
One wishes for more
But it suddenly turns to leave,
Dragging summer away.
Elizabeth Maua Taylor
“August”

August is rushing by in its anxiousness
to be done with this summer of upheaval:
too many tears and too much tragedy.

The sky in weeping empathy
leaves a quick moist kiss on our cheeks,
dripping bedazzled.

It won’t last;
we know these dangling drops will fade
in the heat of the moment.

This wilted, withered summer won’t leave easy
~dragged away still kicking~
we’ll wave it goodbye, blowing our kisses in the air.

A Day Bathed in Sunlight


May your love be firm,
and may your dream of life together
be a river between two shores—
by day bathed in sunlight, and by night
illuminated from within. May the heron
carry news of you to the heavens, and the salmon bring
the sea’s blue grace. May your twin thoughts
spiral upward like leafy vines,
like fiddle strings in the wind,
and be as noble as the Douglas fir.
May you never find yourselves back to back
without love pulling you around
into each other’s arms.
~James Bertolino “Wedding Toast” from Ravenous Bliss

photo by Karen Mullen
photo by Karen Mullen

It was a late June day predicted to be bathed in sunlight with a few clouds, and it ended up a day bathed solely in God’s own light, with cloudy skies, scant sun and a few showers, some from the sky and some from the eyes who witnessed your promised covenant to one another.

May you journey together on a road that reaches to infinity, with no bridges out, or deep ditches to fall into, or trees fallen, barring the path. There may be rough patches, and a fair amount of mud along the way, but always keep the horizon in focus.

May you find each other’s arms when you need them and give yourselves in service to the world when you are able.

And may you always remember your beginnings, next to the noble Douglas fir on a hill, where God in heaven smiled His Light down upon you through teary clouds.

photo by Karen Mullen
photo by Karen Mullen

An Unchanging Flower


 
Like the small soft unchanging flower
     The words in silence speak;
Obedient to their ancient power
     The tear stands on my cheek.

 
Though our world burns, the small dim words
     Stand here in steadfast grace,
And sing, like the indifferent birds,
     About a ruined place.

 
Though the tower fall, the day be done,
     The night be drawing near,
Yet still the tearless tune pipes on,
     And still evokes the tear.

 
The tearless tune, wiser than we,
     As weak and strong as grass
Or the wild bracken-fern we see
     Spring where the palace was.

~Ruth Pitter “On an Old Poem” from Poems 1926-1966

When I write
a poem, sometimes, there is a kind of daze
that lifts, and I can see
what I couldn’t before, as if my mind
was in a fog, a cloud,
and only wanted

a poem to lift it out. I wanted
the rhythm, just the right
word, the crescendo from whisper to loud
celebration, and found them in the days
of trying poems. And I don’t mind
telling you: poetry has brought complacency

to a (wanted) end, turned upside-down days
aright, settled my unquiet mind,
and allowed me to clearly see.

~Monica Sharman from What Poetry Can Do”

When the world is topsy-turvy
and all seems immersed in fog and cobwebs,
it helps to put down images and words
to clarify and highlight.

Daily I need reminding to stay centered,
daily I acknowledge what makes me weep
and what is worth celebration.

It is a new day to illustrate with words and pictures
what is unchanging in my life:
thank God for a new day,
everyday.

Heaven Itself

It is possible, I suppose that sometime
we will learn everything
there is to learn: what the world is, for example,
and what it means. I think this as I am crossing
from one field to another…


At my feet the white-petalled daisies display
the small suns of their center piece, their – if you don’t
mind my saying so – their hearts. Of course
I could be wrong, perhaps their hearts are pale and
narrow and hidden in the roots. What do I know?


But this: it is heaven itself to take what is given,
to see what is plain; what the sun lights up willingly;
for example – I think this
as I reach down, not to pick but merely to touch –
the suitability of the field for the daisies, and the
daisies for the field.

~Mary Oliver from “Daisies”

I am content realizing I won’t understand what this world means, (and why any of us matter when we are all made up of the same atoms as everything else in existence);

No, I will remain in the dark until I cross from this field to the next. I have to wait for heaven itself to see how the Sun illuminates what matters.

It is all mystery in the meantime, and sometimes a mean and joyless mystery – with pain and heartbreak and suffering, but just enough loving sacrifice to make it worthwhile.

How are our atoms different from that stone, or that tree or that daisy?

We are breathed on. As God’s breath surges within us, we laugh out loud, weep mightily and sing out His Words – struggling to be suitable for this field, so often trampled and broken, but with plans to flourish plentiful in the Sun of heaven.

From Cut and From Tumble…

God keep my jewel this day from danger;
From tinker and pooka and bad-hearted stranger.
From harm of the water, from hurt of the fire.
From the horns of the cows going home to the byre.
From the sight of the fairies that maybe might change her.
From teasing the ass when he’s tied to the manger.
From stones that would bruise her, from thorns of the briar.
From evil red berries that wake her desire.
From hunting the gander and vexing the goat.
From the depths o’ sea water by Danny’s old boat.
From cut and from tumble, from sickness and weeping;
May God have my jewel this day in his keeping.
~Winifred Lett (1882-1973) Prayer for a Child

This prayer has hung in our home for almost three decades, purchased when I was pregnant with our first child.  When I first saw it with its drawing of the praying mother watching her toddler leave the safety of the home to explore the wide world, I knew it addressed most of my worries as a new mother, in language that helped me smile at my often irrational fears.  I would glance at it dozens of time a day, and it would remind me of God’s care for our children through every scary thing, real or imagined.

And I continue to pray for our grown children, their spouses, and now for three precious grandchildren who live far from us. I do this because I can’t help myself but do it, and because I’m helpless without the care and compassion of our sovereign God.

Right now, this week, I pray for all children who are growing up in an increasingly divisive and conflicted world, who cannot understand why skin color should make a difference to one’s hopes and dreams and freedom to walk anywhere without feeling threatened.

May I be changed in my prayers.
May we all be changed, in a twinkling of an eye.

I pray because I can’t help myself.
I pray because I’m helpless.
I pray because the need flows out of me all the time

— waking and sleeping.
It doesn’t change God — it changes me.

~C.S. Lewis