There is burning in the nasturtiums. The moment evening is about to fade They fire An entire day’s gathering of sun For anyone to see. Any other time They’re a sassy orange The opposite of faint. But just as the sun lowers herself To kiss the neighbor’s maple The nasturtiums descend into fullness And glowing red Give away all their light.
Maybe the matrix of the Earth is disintegrating.
And maybe that disintegration is necessary.
And maybe the great arc of time collapses, pulses like shattered mercury, reorganizes, becomes a wormhole of uncertainty.
And maybe the most fruitful day of the Triduum, is the one we least know how to occupy. The second day while the stone remains in place, and we are on either side of it. On one side, in the silence of the tomb, traveling. On the other side held in a sabbatical tradition of cessation, but nevertheless free to sleep, grieve, or anticipate.
Or maybe, we are the stone through which nothing passes and wherein the speed of light is too slow to comprehend. Here, touching both sides, resisting nothing.
Maybe, if You hadn't waited until the last night. Maybe, if right from the start Or at least somewhere in the middle, You'd sat those men in a circle. Equally distant from the Center And regarding each other fully On level ground, They wouldn't have argued. Who was best? Who was least? When each in his place round the rim, Each body of love and dust had work to do. Lord, I'm telling You, They needed practice. To change the order, Change the form. Had they started sooner, Learned to wash each other's feet, Maybe we wouldn't be in such a mess, Still trying to prove our supremacy. You did what you could With who showed up, And so, as we follow, Must we Strip ourselves of rank, Stoop and fill a basin, Scrub the grit from our companions' necessary soles, And with our clothing, dry between their toes.
For Jim (met in circle), on his 73rd birthday.
Image: Unknown creator from the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedon Church and gathered from Northeast Wisdom
Already August, and august.
It means ripening into fullness. One gains sagacity while retaining vigor. There’s an attainment of stature and only the slightest turn toward decline. A pivot small enough to be ignored or mistaken for a signal of eternal reign.
I knew august in my fifties. The great surprise of post-menopausal zest. My body still capable of feats of endurance, my mind still believing in a brand of invincibility. At the top of my career, equipped to make more gardens, I tackled the even harder work of extracting myself from an unhealthy household and establishing my independence.
Looking in the mirror my fifty-ninth August, my hair the remarkable colors of hardwood ash, my eyes still true blue, I declared this the age I had been waiting for.
August, the tipping point into autumn.
Somewhere across 35th Street a large dog bays. Closer a squirrel greedily chews a green apple. Then dogs to the north take up the cry. What have they heard that I’m not equipped to?
The nation is august, too. The fruit is set. Only it seems there’s a widespread infection of smut and a plague of gnawing insects, exploiting the ripening, the harvest at dire risk.
I drop into silent prayer, a necessary practice learned in my sixties, that I might meet great loss with greater love.
May the legion of contemplatives, saints, mystics, and humble servants join in concert with the angels and ancestors to transmute forces of ruin into harvestable fruits of compassion. May rapacious destruction pupate into liberation. May a reciprocity of gratitude ripen into our most valued currency. And may the language of war be winnowed from our governance.
Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day, love’s arduous and jubilant walk to the cross, to the center of all things, where the horizontal line of what we experience as time and narrative is pierced by the vertical line of Truth. The horizontal line stretching backward and forward farther than the eye can see. The vertical line generated like lightning. The crossing of these lines we call Now.
The vocabulary of sacrifice can’t help but show up on such a day. We have to look at what slaughter has to do with offering. How can taking the life of another be an offering of my own? It can’t. That precious lamb or bull or child or virgin represents those things we worship more than anything: Security, a future, innocence, power. “Here,” we say, “I’ll give you my prize as proof of how much I fear you. To prove I love you. What’s that you say? You only want me? No. No. No. I’ll have to think about that.” And we walk it all back. How did we get so mixed up?
I think of my sister’s final Now.
Cindy woke up, peed, showered, had coffee. She walked the dogs, ate breakfast, dressed, did her hair, put together her lunch, stepped into shoes. The December day was bright and warm. The key went into the ignition. Music played. She put her elbow on the slight ledge where car door meets window, and tipped her head into her hand while waiting for a light to change. She arrived at work, said good morning. At her desk, she thought about what she needed to do to get ready for a trip to Sally’s cabin. And then, with an internal blow near her right temple, her light went out. In the shock, her heart arrested, but was too strong – from walks and gardening and time in the mountains – to stop.
The EMTs couldn’t let her go. That decision came down to us, her family.
So here we are. Here I am, braiding and unbraiding the threads of story and loss – a far cry from and resonant echo of letting go – and all tangled up with the language of sacrifice.
Cindy’s life ended. The wave fell back into the ocean. This did not happen for a reason. She was not taken, stolen, smote, executed, or sacrificed. This is not to say her life had no meaning. And who knows if she offered anything up or what she offered, if she did. So much that isn’t ours to know.
Here, only, today’s Now. No life is ever completed, and yet everyone is complete in the Mystery.
the Mary in me
bows to the Mary in you
giving birth to God
you think only she
alone in the world chosen
worthy so are you
dark and holy night
unknowing breathing waiting
the Joseph in me
bows to the Joseph in you
accepting God’s son
he won’t inherit your tools
no one prepared you
raise him anyway
the Mystery in real life
reaching for your hand
That wind came barreling down from the Northwest, over the hill into Grand Marais, and out to Lake Superior. At the uphill edge of town, a gust takes your breath. You walk three steps in place against it and turn away, staggering, to blink at the place where steel gray water meets paler sky. Beyond the horizon that wind piles water into mountains and overwhelms the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Grand Marais is a town with its face to a vast drinkable sea, cold enough to kill you almost any day of the year. The ghosts of colossal sturgeon claim its depths and wait, wait for the next of us to fall into torpor on the metallic surface and join them.
It’s a town with its back to a dark forest, too quiet to hide in.
In the worst of winter, cold steals into a cabin, snapping minds like twigs. A rifle repeats 5 times, and the wife, the kids, the head of household, lose their heat in dark pools, while outside, dogs whimper on heavy chains, waiting to be fed.
Should you survive, you’ll come out from under winter’s weight just in time for the descent of biting flies.
Why would anyone want to live here?
Perhaps because in the violent indifference of the place you also find beauty, and you sense the holy necessity of everything, down to the wriggling white grub, the bacteria digesting the fir needle, the chickadee’s insistent cheerfulness, the half-blind hulk of moose, even the mosquito’s whine.
And you want to know it, every part. You want to disappear into the heart of it.
This wanting can go several ways. It can die into hardness, the lack of gratitude for your own existence, and the need to battle against the suchness of the place. It can turn you into an expert on mushrooms. It can sing in your DNA, so that when you’re striding down an unpaved road, you’re blasted with an inkling of who you are. It can call you out, over and over, to the edge in the middle of hypothermia, where you let go, let everything go.
Like the inconsolable dawn, leaking into the coldest hour of night, a knowing seeps into your dark horizon. You are seen, embraced, loved. Every cell. Every clumsy thought. The place knows you.
It’s then that you realize: every day of your life will be spent in prayer. Every crunching footstep. Every stone tossed into the breathing water. Every sigh turning to frost in your hair.
For Barb L.
Today’s weather prediction proved spot on. Air temperature barely crested freezing. The shrugging mountains pulled down clouds like knitted caps, although for warmth or anonymity I couldn’t say. Their obscure motive kept all moisture hesitating, ultimately staying put aloft. The flat corner lot maintained a muted witness.
Today marks eight full years living on the northwest quadrant of this intersection. The house was built a year before I was born, a time of stubborn cheerfulness in the face of A-bombs and communists, and the new expression of patriotism, which was prosperity. In sixty-five years, it has shifted, following the subtle moves of the powerful soil on which it stands. I’ve shifted, too.
The quiet of living alone inside the house no longer startles. No longer embarrassing, the ubiquity of dandelions are cherished for their reliable and well-timed nourishment to bees of every stripe. I no longer resent the intrepid soil, respecting instead its awesome ability to expand and contract, accepting with gratitude all it allows to grow.
I’ve lived here long enough to hear the soil’s memories. The successful rooted penetration of prairie grasses holding everything in place through cloudbursts and rough spring wind. The thunder of bison hooves, their snorts, bellows, and rolling. The burrowing of prairie dogs, ferrets, owls, and snakes. The scamper of rabbits and pronghorns. The dancing songs of meadowlarks. Then, the bellicose rumbling of earthmoving machines.
I’ve learned to cook for one and always have enough for company. And friends have come. They’ve walked over from down the block. They’ve journeyed here from the past, trekked here from Wisconsin and Iowa and Minnesota, from Adliswil and Manchester and Wakkerstroom.
Now, the day before All Hallow’s Eve, I also remember the souls who visited and have made even longer journeys home. Having known them here and knowing they will never be here, again, adds to the sacredness of this experience, of having been changed by a place even as I have endeavored to make this place my own.
Cloudy equals cool, and I had energy.
Out I went. Took up the hose and showered the containers and drier spots on the flat corner lot. While I drenched the grapevine, a woman with shoulder-length grey hair strolled by. She stopped and chatted over the chain-link fence about the weather. How strangely cool it is, how quickly it can change in Colorado. Although, in her tidy black pants and pastel striped shirt, she wasn’t exactly familiar, it’s the sort of exchange I’m used to in a neighborhood of wide sidewalks and pedestrians. With a look of purpose and a contented smile, she strolled on.
By the time I made it down to the Sambucus, she was striding up the other side of the street. “Must be visiting one of the neighbors,” I thought as she stopped some 15 feet before the intersection and crossed toward me, again. She stepped up the curb with a little difficulty and seemed to get tangled as she walked through the tansy, coneflowers, and asters. Fearing she might stumble, I asked her if she needed a hand. “No,” she said, “if I can just make it through these weeds.”
Again, not so unusual. Natural equates wild equates weeds for lots of folks. Trying to sound firm and gentle, I said, “Those aren’t weeds. I actually work pretty hard to take care of that garden.” She stepped out onto the safety of the sidewalk. “Oh,” she said looking a little guilty. She regained her stride in her original direction.
As I finished up, she walked up the other side of the street, this time crossing the intersection. I thought, “Good for her, getting in such a nice walk.”
In I went, poked down something from the fridge for supper, and turned on the computer. Just as I opened an email, there was a knock at the door.
There she stood. Lost. Really lost.
“I was on my way home from work,” she said, “and my car stopped working. Then, I think it was my nephew who came and got it. Now, I don’t know where my car is.”
“Oh!” I said. “Would you like to come in?”
“I don’t want to bother you,” she said.
“Not at all,” I said. “Please, come in.”
“Here, sit wherever you’d like.” She perched on the love seat, her feet in tiny white walking shoes, snuggled next to each other. “Are you thirsty? May I get you a glass of water?”
She insisted she was fine.
I recapped her dilemma. “So, your car stopped working on your way home from work and your nephew came for it…”
“Or maybe it was my Dad…”
I notice she is empty-handed. “Someone you knew took your car with your purse and keys, and now you don’t know where it is.”
Though she looks not a day younger than 65, she nods like a school girl.
“Do you know where you are?”
“I think I’m somewhere between work and home.”
“Oh! Where do you live?”
She lights up. “Somewhere near downtown.”
“Do you know your address?”
“I think it’s 515.” Her air is at once satisfied and evasive. Five years ago, I had conversations like this with my dad. His dodging and deceits infuriated and frightened me. Suddenly, in the middle of my gut, I understood them more generously.
“Oh! Nice! Your house number is 515. And what street do you live on?”
“I. I don’t know.”
“Oh, I see!” I’m feeling tender and charmed. “Is there someone who might know where you live?”
She said her sister would know. But, if we called her, it would take a long time for her sister to get here. She tells me the name of the town where her sister lives. Had I heard of it? No, but if you tell me your sister’s name, maybe we can find her.
Over the next little while, I learn her name, her sister’s and brother-in-law’s names, her dad’s name. I try to locate them all via the internet on my phone. I find a number for her sister. It rings and rings. Every other line of inquiry leads us in circles. Her dad should be home from work by now, she’s certain. He always comes and gets her. He works at the hardware store. Did I know which one?
She worries, over and over, that she’s interrupting my supper. Are you hungry, I ask? Oh, no. My mom always has bowls of snacks set out for us when I get home from school.
I try her sister’s number again.
“What do we do now?” she asks.
“I know. How about if I call the police and see if anyone is looking for you?”
“OK! Maybe they’ll know where my dad is.”
“Or your car!”
So, I dial 911. All the while I describe her to the operator, she looks at those tiny white shoes, her hands folded in her lap. “Is she cooperative?” they ask. “Call, again, immediately, if she leaves.”
My new friend is going nowhere, if I have anything to say about it.
“What do we do now?” she asks.
“We’re going to wait for someone to come and take you home.”
“I don’t want to interrupt your supper.”
“Oh!” I laugh. “I’ve already eaten. Are you sure you’re not hungry?”
“No, no. I’m fine. My mom always has bowls of things out for me when I get home from school. I like your house. This is a nice house.”
“Thank you! How do you feel?”
“Oh, you know, it’s a little hard when you can’t remember things.”
“Ah. You’re a little anxious?”
“No, no, no. I’m comfortable here. This is a nice house.”
“I’m so glad.”
“But I’m taking up all your time. I should go.”
“Not at all! I’m enjoying your company.”
We talk in loops and tendrils until a young officer comes to the door. “And your name is?”
“Chris, this is my friend, Karen. Karen, this is Chris. He’s come to give you a ride home.”
“Do you know where I live?” Her soft voice is full of wonder and relief. She stands as he tells her the address.
The evening is just fading as they walk out the gate.
“Thank you for coming!”
Absorbed in her conversation with Chris, she doesn’t turn.
I wave, anyway.
There is no high ground on the flat corner lot.
That is, unless you count the moral high ground to which I sometimes flee.
For a long while, now, there have been all kinds of people, all along the political spectrum and in every walk of life, feeling threatened, dismissed, put-out. Me included. It’s easy to tell: our fear turns to outrage, and our outrage into epithets and diatribes.
This election cycle, as the rants reach a fevered pitch, I’m so tempted to sharpen my tongue. Oh, to cleverly spout off and take refuge in my superior outrage! Ah-ha! To brandish my rapier wit and slash the buttons off some neatly jacketed stupidity. The problem is, it’s rarely as satisfying as I think it will be. After silently composing my repartee, I’m wound up and exhausted. Ultimately, I only prove to myself, that I’m a wanna-be intellectual bully. Yuck.
I needed to calm my nerves. So, for a week, I took a retreat of a different nature. I stayed away from news feeds.
As the mental replays of all the arguments, opinions, and speculations quieted, I gained a tiny bit of perspective.
When the presidential election is finally behind us, guess what? The vast majority of us will still need to live together, do business, share the highways, walk the grocery aisles, go to school, worship.
We live in a democratic republic. We are not governed from on high. We govern ourselves. After we’ve cast our ballots, after we’ve sent people off to legislate and administrate, how will we govern ourselves?
We all have to decide how to behave. Since I want to live peacefully and be treated with civility, I came up with a list of tenets by which I hope to go forward.
- Whatever has my attention gets bigger. So, I’ll focus my thoughts and actions in ways that lift my spirits and give me a positive direction.
- There’s a huge difference between staying informed and feeding an addiction to fury. Staying informed is a satiable appetite. Consume enough and digest.
- Reason will not budge hysteria. Don’t try.
- Violence in thought, word, or deed only begets more violence. If I’m feeling angry, that’s a signal I need to take care of myself.
- A case of differing opinions, does not require me to win. Let go of having the last word.
- Closely related: A well turned, emotionally and intellectually engaging argument may make me feel great, but it doesn’t make me right. There are plenty of other ways to exercise my wit.
- When we hear each other, we can have a conversation. When we have a conversation, we can grow, plan, heal. I’ll put the tongue sharpener away, and listen.
Well, alright, then. Maybe there’s no high ground on the flat corner lot, but there are a few raised beds. They’re far more productive.