Honoring the Dead

A while back I wrote a social media post for the “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” genealogy challenge. The week’s prompt was Oldest, and I wrote about the oldest cousin on my mom’s side of the family.

Little Bill died in a tragic vehicle accident at the age of seven, leaving me as heir to the title of oldest. His siblings thanked me for memorializing someone whose life was too short to leave much of a legacy of his own.  

A friend of mine shared that the oldest child in her family had been a ‘blue baby,’ living only nine weeks. When her parents moved nearby in their later years, she learned more about the brother she never knew. She learned about her parents’ abiding love for him. She discovered he was always alive in their hearts. Now that her parents have died, too, she feels called upon to keep his memory alive. That need fuels a deep connection to this person who had never been much more than a myth to her.

I’m currently working on a book about my mother’s life and times. That means her siblings, her parents, her grandparents, too. Almost all of them are long gone from this world, so part of my process involves calling up memories, begging them to awaken from their slumber deep in the recesses of my mind, sometimes birthing random mental snapshots into full-blown narratives.

I was having trouble getting my grandparents’ story to make much sense on paper. I found myself fervently wishing they were still here for a face-to-face. (Actually, this is something I regularly wish for.)

Sometimes, it feels as if they have heard me. My eyes wander beyond the keyboard and I see their ethereal presence. It’s not my imagination; they’re there. Side by side they stand, he in his dark brown dress trousers, their legs as wide at the bottom as at the top, the way they were back in the ’50s. She’s wearing her usual fare: a cotton shirtwaist dress, small brown print on a beige background, her stockings rolled tightly an inch or two above her knees just the way I remember.

I only see my grandparents from mid-thigh down. But I feel them standing together, their arms touching, their eyes boring into the top of my head. They don’t answer my questions. But their presence is powerful. They are urging me on, assuring me if I keep at it, I’ll figure it out. But reminding me it’s all up to me now. They can only cheerlead. And they do. Silently, but hard.

I don’t dare look up. I’m so afraid the gossamer thread that binds us in this moment will drift off, my grandparents with it, and I want them to stay.

 

 

I, too, feel a deep and abiding connection to these people who no longer walk among us. They continue to have much to offer. I want to be the keeper of their flames.

Interpretations of a Snapshot

I tried an experiment a few weeks back when I posted a photo on social media and asked my friends to study its details and tell me what they saw. I said nothing about the photo itself, though a few immediately knew it was a picture of my mom in her teenage years.

I conducted this inquiry for a couple of reasons. It was Mother’s Day and I wanted to do something besides tell how my mother is the best in the world. I hope there are millions of people who believe that about their own moms; we don’t have to compete. But maybe I could get people to spend a few minutes studying her—a different kind of tribute.

I had another reason for seeking input. I’m writing a book about my mom’s life and times, and photographs will be a big part of the story. I love pictures; I’ve probably spent more hours poring over Mom’s photo albums than everyone else in my family together, including my mother. Predictably, my attention is usually drawn to the intended subject of the photos, and I realized I may be missing some important details. Like the fact that the shrubbery and lawn in this picture seem unkempt. There’s a story there, and I’d never even noticed it before I took a long, hard look a few weeks ago. I wondered what others might see that I was still missing and how their attention might hone my own visual sensibilities.

Just the way people expressed themselves caught my interest. Some comments were more emotional and personal while others attempted complete objectivity. Some were philosophical; others whimsical. Here are excerpts from some of the varied insights. Maybe you’ll find the process as interesting as I did. I learned a lot. I hope I’ll never look at a snapshot the same again.

  • I’m noticing the trees or bushes that are behind her—but I can’t name them! I see the pillar is handmade using REAL stones. I think this photo may have previously been in a photo album that had black pages.
  • The photo was taken at mid-day, because shadows are short. The house has a deep porch. It looks like creek rocks were used instead of field stones. One of the trees behind her to the left looks like a young poplar. The tall bush on her left looks like a privet, allowed to grow tall. She is wearing laced shoes and bobby socks. Her dress has a subtle print to it, but the photo is underexposed, so the print does not show well. She has a short vest. It is summer.
  • It asks me the question: Why is this person trying to blend in with the shrubbery?
  • She is standing near a porch and a porch pillar that is encompassed with overgrown bushes. I wonder about the things I can’t see. I can’t see the house, even though I see the rock pillar and the ceiling of what I perceive to be the porch. And I wonder who is taking the picture. And what is in her hand that she is holding up? Her mouth is slightly open, so she must be saying something to the photographer. I like that this photo has lots of plants and less hardscaping than the modern houses have. She is wearing a dress, and ankle socks with her shoes.
  • I see determination and strength.
  • I wonder what she is pointing at with her raised right arm. Is it the vining plant above her finger?
  • I have a thing with black/white photos. I ‘know’ the colours (at least I think I do) and your mom’s dress/bolero is light yellow with a white blouse or front piece. I believe it is all one piece with the bolero attached.
  • She’s standing beside what appears to be an Italian Cypress and pointing to something behind her. If you note the angle of her finger—she is not pointing straight up, but up and behind. The yard she is in is not kept.

And in response to that last comment came these two:

  • Maybe in the 30s and 40s yards were just not manicured to the extent to which we have grown accustomed.
  • I agree. We mowed and trimmed much less back then—no power tools! Not enough time, either; we focused on chicken flocks and large gardens.

I also appreciated that my commenters offered the following perceptions, which have nothing much to do with my photograph but remind me of other important points worth pondering.

  • I am drawn to the torn corner of the photo. It’s sad somehow. It fragments the photo, makes it not whole, much like memory itself—remnants of time, fleeting glimpses into something long past. Photos freeze a moment forever, but like the memory of that moment they will change over time; fade, become fragmented and develop holes that leave out bits of information.
  • When I’m getting ready to do something with a “vintage” photo, I try to do only as much cropping as is truly necessary. My thinking is that I need to preserve the surroundings as much as possible. Even if they don’t seem important to me, they might be significant to future generations.
  • I often try to cut out or hide parts [of a photo] that I don’t think are pretty or don’t make for a good composition. But I need to think more about how to “preserve the surroundings.”

Then there was this one. May we all heed its lesson. “My neighbor used to look at a daylily and point out every little nuance—color, pattern, edge, shape, sizes, etc. She made me look at each flower individually, and the unique beauty of that flower. My desire is to look at people in that manner.” 

 

 

Found Poetry, Part IV

(For more Found Poetry, click here, here, and here. I’d love to hear what you think.)

Merlin’s Last Voyage

crystal moon
out of the mist
ancient evening
entering the mystery
of a hidden world

dark falls the night
on the island cathedral

 

Night Sight

northern lights
swimming
o’er the land, o’er the sea
casting out darkness

 

Earthdream

sunshine on a meadow
the smile of a breeze
breathing light
between two worlds

The Month of Yellow

April is the month of yellow around these parts.

The daffodils finally burst into bloom last week and dandelions along with them. Country roadsides have exploded into an earthly vision of sunshine with forsythia. The shrubs are packed so tightly together, their branches so thick and intertwined, that even the cleverest rabbit would have a hard time navigating them.

And since yesterday, the goldfinches, those canaries of the wild, have overtaken our bird feeders (at least when they can wrest a few perches from the squirrels). At this very moment, I look outside to see half a dozen of the lemony-yellow birds crowded on the feeder outside the living room window, with more waiting in the wings—flitting in the rhododendron, sitting on branches of the nearby mountain ash, even perching on the windowsill.

Everything about goldfinches is showy—bright yellow feathers glowing next to raven-colored wings, sweet soprano chirps filling the air, bouncing flight patterns giddily announcing, “We’re back!”

Ten days ago, the day heralding April, we watched snow falling outside the very window where the finches now gather. Exactly six months ago, the colors were inverted. At ground level, nature was browning. The color was in the trees-—the rich, muted reds and bronzes of fall. Today, our trees are still bare. To see most of today’s colors requires looking down instead of up, down towards the earth from which they are being birthed.

April yellows are the yellowest yellows. Like spring itself, the yellow of daffodils, dandelions, forsythia, and goldfinches is a symbol of happiness, hope, energy, our very life force.

April is a good time to be alive.

Again with the Found Poetry!

(Unlike my first two rounds of SXM Found Poetry—here and here—these short pieces are titled. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.)

DSCF4886

 

Dreamless

kindle a flame
before the last leaf falls
on the shores of time
be at peace

 

Contemplation

tears in the rain
flowing into formlessness
roll on forever

 

Scenes of Reflection

rainbow visions
cloudscapes
canopy of stars
between sacred mountains

 

And Evening Falls

silver cloud shimmer
almost full moon
serenade of the night sky

 

 

More SXM Found Poetry

(For more about my latest foray with Found Poetry, click here. And leave a comment if you find a favorite, please.)

 

I.
waters of time
cast out the darkness
of a thousand teardrops
in the rhythm of the night

 

II.
through the blue
rainshadow sky
the river dances
drifting toward a dream
of canyon sounds
in a western wind

 

III.
out of the mist
promises
memories of comfort

 

IV.
first snow
ocean peace
bamboo forest
in the deep distance
I kiss the quiet

 

V.
breath of sky
sunshine on a stony path
frost on an empty field
summer’s end

 

VI.
the light in your eyes
lifts me on a weightless
incandescent voyage
you are my home

Winter, Reconsidered

My emotional connection with winter has a long history. It has rocked back and forth sometimes depending on my geographic circumstances. For the last few years our alliance has been strained.

This year, I’ve been trying to redefine my relationship to the season of short days and long nights, relentlessly prolonged and wrapped in gray in my neck of the woods.

During the coldest months, the sun’s rays rarely make an appearance and not just because of the brief period of daylight. Overcast is a generous word for many of our wintry days. Of the first fourteen days of this new year, we had perhaps two sunny days. That was the beginning of a season-long trend.

Even those rare days are frequently unhelpful when it comes to getting a dose of Vitamin D. The frigid temperatures allow for only a couple of small skin slivers—between toboggan and eyebrows and between lower eyelids and muffler. Even eyes may be covered with sunglasses, particularly when sun and snow combine to create blinding brightness. And sometimes the snow—especially if it’s deep, icy, or drifts high and unevenly—makes the outdoors a dangerous proposition, particularly for those of us who are more susceptible to breakage because of age.

Nonetheless, I’m taking measures.

  • I treat all my senses: my most worn sweater that wraps me like a cocoon, thick, soft socks, and a plush comforter make me feel as if I’m burrowing into the neck of a friendly Old English Sheepdog.
  • I surround myself with the soft glow and herbal scent of candles. I play soothing music that lifts my spirit—mostly classical, folk, and Celtic.
  • I try to hold an intentional smile, if only as subtle as the Madonna’s. It brings comfort to those around me, and my spirits unconsciously lift.
  • I sip tea, slowly, and look at the outdoors. Really look at it, noticing all the nuances of winter’s offerings, playing with words to find the most descriptive—and life-affirming—ways to describe the scene before me.

The work is all-encompassing. But so far it has proven worth the effort. Winter will still be around for a while up here on the diagonal, so I’m still working at it.

Our society has a tendency to think of winter as a time of death. Green grass and summer wildflowers have ‘died;’ leaves have fallen and dried making deciduous trees look dead. I’ve challenged myself this year to look at nature differently.

Lawns may no longer be emerald, but they will regrow; the grass is not dead. We have a tendency to overlook the subtle tan shades of tall grasses, but they provide rustling interest on a winter day, even more when they wave gently in a breeze.

Winter isn’t a braggart. Its marvels are less noticeable than the lushness of spring and the vibrancy of summer. In those seasons, winter’s elusive wonders are hidden. But now—now they surround us. Now is the time to revel in them.

When I manage to get out of doors, whether for a walk in the woods or a scenic drive, I look again. I search for positive words, alternatives to bleak, dreary, and overcast. Words like contemplative, silver-tinged skies, reflective, pensive. Winter calls us to introspection. Is that why we resist it?

On one typically cold but unusually bright morning, the roofs of the houses we passed on our way to town were covered with the thinnest veneer of frost. As we rode by, sunlight played on the icy crystals, creating a glittery shimmer, as if the shingles were made of twinkling fairy lights.

The skeletal trees, bare of their green camouflage, fill the landscape with sculptural architecture. Their nakedness allows me to appreciate aspects hidden at other times of the year.

The branches of some reach upward, as if in praise of the sky. Some trees are encircled by draping branches, reminiscent of welcoming arms ready to enfold me and offer comfort. Some trees are so gnarled and craggy it’s easy to imagine they sit on the edge of an enchanted forest.

About now, with trees looking as bereft of life as they have for months, the sap begins rising, an event which will go entirely unnoticed except for syrup makers and those who happen to fell a tree at that crucial time, but pivotal to the reemergence of the verdant leaves we long for.

Subtle color variations and not-so-subtle textural differences in tree bark differentiate one species from another. Touch a sycamore or crape myrtle, with bark as smooth as the proverbial baby’s bottom.

Consider the trees with peeling bark—paper thin birches and rugged shagbark hickories, or the finely ribbed bark of the pin oak and the thick, deeply furrowed bark of the black locust. Bark with overlapping plates, like black birch, make me think of armadillos and scaly dinosaurs.

As I look more closely at trees, I see mosses as dark as midnight and lichens, some the palest green, eerily fluorescent in the dark. In the woods outside my kitchen window sits the tree stump. Over time, moss has begun to creep upwards, slowly covering its sides. Today, I saw for the first time that the entire stump is blanketed in moss as soft as down, hinting at a fairyland.

There are trees with burls and hidey holes. Who goes there?

A cyclops tree?

Winter serves a purpose. Plants store up their reserves, ready to explode with new life as warmer weather and more hours of sunlight appear. The flora does what it needs to do during winter. Animals know how to handle winter, too. Some, like plants, go dormant to preserve strength, feeding off stores of fat until nature is ready to provide its bounty.

What if we humans were to welcome winter in all its aspects and live with it, not against it, as the rest of nature seems to do so well? What if we turned off the electronics, indeed perhaps electric lights when the sun goes down. What if we did those quiet chores best done in front of a fire or by candlelight with a cup of hot chocolate or tea at our sides? What if, instead of staring at some screen, we talked to each other, played games together, put together a jigsaw puzzle, corresponded with relatives and other friends, read aloud or silently, wrote, contemplated? What if we used winter to restore ourselves, to create, to maintain?

Would our family and internal lives be richer? I think they might. Would we welcome winter as we welcome spring? Would we be better primed for what life brings in the next season? We might begin to treasure and even look forward to long winter evenings as a time of personal and family enrichment.

We can’t beat winter. Why not join it?

 

A New Find

I’ve occasionally played around with found poetry, that genre that refashions existing texts to present them as poems.  Poets.org describes found poetry as a literary collage and notes that it usually comes from newspaper articles, speeches, letters, etc.

But I recently discovered another rich source for found poetry: musical titles from the SXM station I most often listen to while in the car. In turning these titles into short poems, I’ve almost always left the titles just as they are, making only the rarest addition of a pronoun or preposition and even more rarely omitting a word from the original.

To offer the greatest possible freedom of interpretation, my SXM found poems are short, generally untitled, and mostly lacking punctuation, choices that seem to offer the best opportunities for individual interpretation. Just the way I like it.

Here are a few. I’ll drop in more in future posts. Because each one is so short but distinct from the others, I think they’re best experienced in small doses. If something particularly strikes you, one way or the other, I hope you’ll comment. I’d like to hear what you think as I keep working on this intriguing poetry style.

I.

all dreams
are made within
looking through
voices of the past

 

II.

the wind
whispers visions
stretching my wings
as the story unfolds

 

III.

desert afternoon
bright sky
dark dreams
in a long lonely light

 

IV.

Swimming with stones
in a dark and silent space
as a clearness of light
beams out of the silence;
now I let it go.

 

V.

miles from nowhere
wind whispers
on a lazy afternoon
I could live here
at one with you

 

One Life

What if someone were to curate a museum exhibit of your life? What objects would you want included? What would they say about who you are and what matters to you? How would the accompanying plaque interpret the exhibit?

Here are some vignettes I picture as part of my “One Life” exhibit:

A seed picture, a macramé wall hanging, and a handwoven basket depicting a childhood of craft-learning at my grandmother’s feet which morphed into my would-be-hippie-street-fair-vendor period and morphed again into a more nuanced appreciation of handiwork and an unending need to work with my hands;

A shelf filled with books by the likes of Annie Dillard, Mark Twain, Mary Oliver, Robert Fulghum and more, some of which prompted me to read more while others influenced who I became and still others led me to become a writer myself;

A table holding a pencil, eraser, and notebook symbolizing my love of writing, an urge  that visited me randomly and infrequently until recently, when it became a near obsession;

A collection of LPs and CDs: classical—Mozart, Chopin, Mussorgsky, Beethoven (there was a time when I fantasized about becoming a concert pianist. That time was sandwiched between my Debbie Reynolds period and delusions of being a race car driver); folk—philosophical storysingers the likes of the Kingston Trio, Christine Lavin, John McCutcheon, and Carrie Newcomer who prick our consciences and prod us to action with thought-provoking messages, sometimes with some quirky humor thrown in; the Gaelic melodies of Enya and kin which, through their sheer ethereal beauty, transport my mind to the shores of my heritage;

A hammer, a saw, and a scattering of nails on a 2 x 4 piece of lumber portraying our once-in-a-lifetime homebuilding adventure;

A grouping of family heirlooms—perhaps a chair, a plate, a crocheted doily: items that tell the story of my attachment to family and family history;

A tent, a canoe, and a campfire all in the midst of a small square of outdoor space, testaments to my love of camping, water, and nature;

A collection of photo albums—more proof of my strong sense of family as well as my love of photography, nature, and wildlife;

A corner filled with bumper stickers, protest posters, sit-in images, and a couple of rabble-rousing speeches representing my passion for human rights, all sorts, and my years as an activist and leader in social change movements;

A few fruit- and vegetable-filled canning jars next to some colorful seed packets resting atop a small mound of well-composted garden soil—evidence of my gardening and food preservation heritage and interest.

All of this would, of course, be displayed against a backdrop of the Blue Ridge mountains while the sounds of bird songs and a waterfall are piped into the exhibit space.

Looked at as a whole, such an exhibit speaks to me of eclecticism (or perhaps the inability to settle on any one thing). I like to think it also speaks of an enthusiasm for life, a certain joie de vivre. But I see what isn’t there, too—in some cases, things I wish I’d had a chance to experience or was passionate about, but in truth am not; in others, things that once mattered and have been cast aside. I see the absence of objects that are critically important to other people but don’t matter a whit to me.

(Conspicuously absent is anything about my family—other than the references to the photo album and family heirloom exhibits. Make no mistake: they are, every single one of them, central to my life. But with this kind of exercise, it’s all too tempting to focus on other people and to turn the whole thing into a cliché, so I resist the urge.)

Chances are, there are also things that have simply skipped my mind in the moment. If I were to write this piece next week or next year, an entirely different collection of objects might appear.

I wonder what my exhibit would say to the casual observer? What about yours?

The Holy in the Here and Now

The Holy in the Here and Now

Someone recently mentioned to me that dogs are more in tune with the earth than we humans. Think about it: they sense moods; they know when a storm is coming. In a car with the window down, they sniff out every scent—apparently with great joy. They know when their beloved human is due to arrive or even when someone unexpected is about to come up the drive.

Chalk it up to heightened sensory skills if you want. But the bottom line is dogs aren’t distracted by the sometimes inane things we allow to get in the way of capturing the moment. They don’t share our incessant ability to fret over the past and agonize about the future. They’re all about the present.

It’s a lucky person who can see what is holy in the here and now:

a child’s laughter,
the wind,
daffodils and cardinals,
redbuds and moss,
the wingbeat of bats,

the architecture of a tree,
a baby’s toes,
sister duets,
cloud shadows drifting across mountains,
the poetry of a shovel’s utility,

dew drops on a spider web,
the songs of spring peepers after an evening shower,
little red wagons,
a seed’s unfurling tiny leaves as they break through the soil,
baseball and kite-flying,

a cow’s bellow or the dignity of a donkey,
food from the field,
a friend’s voice,
leaf mold and mushrooms on the forest floor,
a letter in the mail,

embers of an evening campfire,
grapes fresh off the vine,
the kindness of a stranger,
hope,
a poem,

Spanish moss dripping from oak branches,
a pat on the back,
a smile across the room,
a snowflake caught on the tongue,
a mockingbird’s repertoire or a magpie’s iridescence.

The holy: it’s where we choose to look and how we choose to see.