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What does a woman write when she turns 65 and feels rebellious about being labeled “senior”? When she creates a website to help launch her next book, saying to herself and the world, “Here is my roller coaster life so far...stay tuned!”--? When she, as so often, asks, “Now what, what next, oh Universe, oh Mystery?”

What does a woman write who as often as not procrastinates, spills words of discouragement into her journal, calls a friend to confess both her slowness and the hopelessness that overwhelms, then revives, crafts a haiku and goes off to walk a labyrinth or do contra dancing?

She writes, “Hello! Greetings on this sunny or stormy day! I am glad to meet you on these pages, in the midst of the great stream of life.” She remembers how pivotal it is to be grateful, gives thanks to her website designer and photographer, and writes further, “Thank YOU for browsing here, and blessings on your journey . . .”

Such beauty, such blessings!

Aug 12 2013

sunsetI am watching the last red underbelly of the clouds above a sunset over the Ottawa River, not far from Mud Lake.  A brilliant salmon line etches the bottom of the clouds, below which the sky is a clear blue-pink-gold, and then the tree line is hunched and black, though I know they are dark green.  The sun is gone; the brilliance softens; the clouds are striated, dark blue-grey, then red-pink, with the clear light sky peeking through.

As I biked through the village of Britannia, I could see this sunset coming, and I hurried along the north side of Mud Lake to get out here on the river to enjoy an expanse of sunset, as I seldom can in Montreal. (The photo was taken on the river, right where I was on that Saturday, but taken two days later due to camera challenges, and the sky was lovely, though not quite the same!)

I did stop for a minute by the filtration plant overlook, and saw one hunched heron on a huge rock to my right, where I don’t think I’ve ever seen one before. Then, around the end of the lake, where the water is high this year and the path muddy, crisscrossed with logs and branches to give footing, I saw a distant heron preening, and another — perhaps a greenback heron — fly in, landing with those wide wings for brakes.  My eyes are less strong than they used to be, but I still seem to be able to spot herons!  My first of this year on Mud Lake, as I have hardly been in Ottawa this summer, and not in my home, as usual, so I have to make special trips to Britannia.

Now the clouds have gone deep grey, the last of the red is gone, and the clear sky is a wedge of orange below the broken cloud mass.  Higher up, blue sky and thin white peach fuzz clouds stretch across the heights above me.  I am sitting on a bench beside the bike path, starting to be besieged by insects, but too engrossed in the moment to move on yet.  Next the gulls float silently through that aerial field, dozens of them equally spaced. In the distance the gruff rapids tumble along as they have for eons.  Behind me, a bus purrs by.

I’m so thankful to be here.  And enormously thankful, in an unexpected sense, to be deeply engaged with my “lecture” for the Canadian Quaker Yearly Meeting coming up next week, though writing this paean to the sunset hour is a little detour.  Today I have been wrestling with the huge topic of what is prayer, and how do we “do” prayer, and have concluded I can only dip my toe in that immense, mysterious sea of human longing, given the small amount of time I will be able to spend on that aspect of my overall subject, “The ‘I Don’t Know’ Place, Holy Spirit With Me Always.”  But it is so engaging on a deep level; this honour is stretching me to live up to my very words, and indeed, I feel very blessed to temporarily be in a spiritual midwife role for my Quaker community.  Now I both pray that my presentation will have a good “birth” and I feel guided and held, aware of so many dear friends and Friends sending me the spiritual energy for this astounding task.  Aho!  Amen!  May it be so.

P.s. if you want to attend, it will be Sunday evening the 18th of August, on the campus of the University of Guelph Agricultural College in Kemptville, ON.  At 6:30 various Burundian Friends and others will gather for some rousing African gospel singing, and by 7:00 or so we will settle into the introductory silence for introductions, then my speaking, which should begin at 7:30.  I will be combining my words with some chance for listeners to reflect on what I share, so the entire event will last til about 9pm, close with more silent worship and a song, then there will be cake and celebration (including a sale table for The Heron Spirals).

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My new book is being delivered in the morning!

Jun 28 2013

heronspiral-FULLCOVER

Hurrah, hurrah!  Marquis Printers have confirmed that my seventeen-years-in-gestation new adult book, a kind of spiritual memoir combined with wonderful art and wise quotations, titled The Heron Spirals:  A Commonplace Book, *should* be delivered in time for my first book launch party!  That’s tomorrow, and I am in a flurry of preparations and nerves.

It’s Thursday night, June 27th, and this little book is supposed to appear, fully birthed, at last, in the morning!  A book about my connection to herons was a concept I conceived of sometime back in 1996, when I had time to pull together many journal extracts about seeing and communing with great blue herons, and thereby began a process I had no idea would last til almost now.  Disbelief now competes with fierce delight in the book that has gone to the press — and with some anxieties both in terms of practicalities — how many people, will we have enough refreshments, will the musical entertainment be rehearsed adequately, etc etc —  and in terms of the real labour pains.  If you’d like the whole long story, keep reading — or if you want to cut to the essential:  please join me to celebrate at the Unitarian Church of Montreal [5035 de Maisonneuve Blvd West, H4A 1Y5, just east of Vendome Metro], anytime between  4 and 7 pm, tomorrow, Friday, June 28th.

I will read some pieces from the book –probably one from each of the four “Spirals” that correspond roughly to four sequential time periods — and I will sing a few of the songs referenced in the text, with the help of a very talented young singer who directs the church’s children’s choir, Sarah Albu.  Refreshments and good cheer should be abounding — unless the delivery fails to materialize, but they have promised and I choose to be of faith!

THE LONGER STORY OF THE BOOK’S GROWTH INTO BEING:

I began shaping this small opus during the summer of 1997:  editing the journal pieces, writing new reflections on those original words, rewriting, adding, subtracting, mulling it all over, nailing down related quotes.  I created the first complete manuscript of what I oriiginally called The Heron Journals by March 2001.  In addition, I had met the artist Rod MacIver from Heron Dance and agreed with him that I could use his work to illustrate the whole, for a fee we would work out when I found a publisher.  However, after many tries, I didn’t find one, and instead began working in the Unitarian church in Ottawa as a Director of Religious Education.  That full time job meant not much progress with my manuscript, although I did pursue a few more publishers including the Unitarian Skinner House and Beacon Press.  Along the way I edited the whole, and changed the title to The Heron Reflections. By summer 2005 I had a contract with a start-up publisher –who happened to be Unitarian — and I began a substantial revision, but by the time the now-titled Heron Spirals book was “done” so was the start-up.

Eventually, many readers and part-time editors later, I began negotiating with Rod MacIver to include his heron paintings (and many other subjects that were appropriate to my text), and I had the very satisfying task of matching his art to my prose and poetry.  About the same time I was checking and double checking the sources of all my quotes, and sorting out who needed royalty payments or not — an unending task. Along the way I found a terrific designer through the church, Alison Hall, who has brilliantly brought the whole to fruition.  The Heron Spirals:  A Commonplace Book is the very book I was dreaming of, almost seventeen years ago!

 See more of the book!  Got a heron story or poem to add?  Send it to me or add a comment to that page.  Want to buy your own copy?  Click here, and thank you!

You can also now “like” my Facebook page.

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May Day! May Day! With traditional associations

May 09 2013

May1

“Tra la, it’s May, the lusty month of May”!
And suddenly in Montreal and Ottawa (I’m hanging out in both cities this week) it is not only May, but summer! I wish there were more time for all the seasonal flowers to come out gradually, as they do in England so enticingly, but here it is a pell mell rush, a burst into leaf and blossom, geraniums on top of daffodils; crabapples and lilacs equally glorious though short lived.

I went to sleep on April 30th, remembering how I danced round a Beltane maypole in the dark in the midst of the ancient circle of the Rollright stones, in rural Oxfordshire, some 10-12 years ago. When I awoke on this May Day morning, I not only thought bittersweet thoughts about the fact that I was married on May 1,1968, and widowed almost 18 years ago (so nowadays it is a strange anniversary for me), but I also realized I had had a rare dream about my late husband.

Then I resolved that gratitude was a better frame for the day than self pity, and I started mentally listing all the wonderful, energetic — sometimes even, yes, lusty! — May Days (and later in the month other old Celtic ways of welcoming summer) that I have been delighted to take part in over many years. My first maypole experiences were in grade school, in Pennsylvania, where I can still see the pastel cloth ribbons someone had sewn, and the tall metal pole with a clever little horizontal tricycle wheel at the top from which the ribbons hung. How that ability for the ribbons to rotate helped us dance I don’t remember. I do recall making paper May baskets and filling their cone shapes with flowers, hanging them on door knobs early in the morning.

May3

Perhaps we learned these rituals because we were near Bryn Mawr College, where a passion for Ye Olde English Customs had taken root at the turn of the 19th century — there’s no one left to ask about our May daze now, that little private school having long since closed and my parents passed on. But my older sister went to Bryn Mawr, and she told me about their special May First traditions, beginning with maypole dancing, that have continued to this day. When I married my English husband and taught school in Yorkshire, I organized a May Day celebration in my classroom of 6-and-7-year olds, perhaps not surprisingly! We made a hat rack into our pole and chose a May Queen to be accompanied by an equally diminutive Jack-in-the-Green; parents brought flowers in buckets; and I think none of us has ever forgotten the fun and glory of that chilly spring celebration. Then the Parry family emigrated to Victoria, BC, and I took my little daughter to watch the maypole dancers in front of the provincial government buildings there, on Victoria Day!

By the time I was forty I was not only totally immersed in “calendar customs” but busy writing the definitive book on Canadian holidays and ways we observe them, Let’s Celebrate Canada’s Special Days, for my adopted country. About the time I handed in that — very fat — initial manuscript, I travelled south to watch the once-every-five-years Big May Day at Bryn Mawr, and saw count-them-FIVE tall poles being whirled around by dancers from each year’s class, plus the graduate school. It almost seemed like a race among them to get finished first, quite different from, yet akin to, the sensual abandon of the Rollright crowd on May Eve.

I have continued my May fascination by not only teaching and leading maypole dancing at Mariposa Folk Festival, but also at both the Ottawa Tulip Festival AND Winterlude (yep, there’s a 19th C lithograph of skaters going round a may/winter pole on the frozen canal!), and many other events. In fact, I thought I would write a history of maypoles and actually spent three successive springs in Oxfordshire in the late 1990s doing research. However, I needed to make more of a living, so filed everything away (lots of photos of many places, and hoards of notes and photocopies), and got a job. Maybe after my Heron Spirals book is out and I retire from being a Director of Religious Education (and my Maytimes in this role have included several glorious Maypoles) . . . Stay tuned!

May2

Meantime, here’s where/when/what else I have seen or done to “welcome in the summer, the summer and the May-O” — as much as I can remember!
General singing of May carols begun at the Blue Bell Folk Union One in Hull, Yorkshire, ca 1970 to present!
1st May, 1977 and most years through 1990, Morris dancing “to bring the sun up” in High Park,Toronto, with Green Fiddle Morris, later with Belles of York Clog Morris team (I belonged to a clog team in Oxfordshire, too)
1st May, 1984 Padstow, Cornwall, ‘Obby ‘Os Day
8th May, 1984 Helston Furry dance, Helston, Cornwall
1st May, 1997-98-99 watching the Morris Dancers in Oxford City, plus maypole dancers in several Oxfordshire villages
Late May 1999 Barwick-in-Elmet, Yorkshire, parade of May garlands and raising of their huge central maypole, plus saw several sets of school children dancing round smaller ribbon poles
Late May 1999 Castleton Garland Day procession in the village of that name in the Midlands
So having written all this, memories colour-washing my days since May Day itself this year, it is now a very warm and summery May 8th, the date for the annual Furry Dance Day across the pond in Cornwall, and it’s time to be up and out into this bright day, singing their “Hal-an-Tow” to myself:
To welcome in the summer, the summer and the May-O,
For summer is a coming’ in and winter’s gone away, -O!

 

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January ritual: reviewing my many journals

Jan 19 2013

Whoa, time to write here, as well as in my journal!  In fact, I want to write about what I have already written in one special journal book…. In January each year I usually read over at least some of my past year’s journals to survey any highlights, possible low points, lessons learned and insights gained.  All year long I record these observations on my life in several ways, including the format of “morning pages” popularized by Julia Cameron in her books on The Artist’s Way, though those pages are often too voluminous to read in detail.  I also review my nighttime calendar of gratitude, prayer lists and exercise done, and a book journal that I keep erratically especially for writing about major activities or wisdom. Most recently I have been reading over my notes from my second “Circle of Trust” retreat at Pendle Hill, which I attended almost a year ago now.  That one (of a series of four, all based on the work of Parker Palmer) was focused on the theme of what my leader, Valerie Brown, called the “transforming power of adversity” –much of what she said (and quoted others as saying) seemed very relevant to my life and challenges at this juncture, so here is a summary!  Perhaps others will find it helpful, too.

1.  She said that the Circle of Trust at its core is about creating an environment that is safe enough for the Soul to show up –a.k.a. our Beingness, our Inner Light, the Buddha self, our True Self.

2.  That we are born whole, resourceful and creative (as I believe we all ARE, for sure!), with no separation between the Inner and the Outer self, but socialized through growing up to hide this Soul, and that hiding feels painful.

3.  And that our #1 job is to listen to our own inner Teachers, to our Inward Guide, i.e., our Soul.

4.  So, given the truth that we grow through our pain and suffering, glib as that may seem, the big question is what we DO with our pain, loss, challenges, adversity…

5.  Valerie has found two elements that are particularly helpful in coming to terms with this nature of being human: a) naming that challenge or etc, seeing it clearly, and b) reflecting, sitting with the challenge and holding it with compassion and gentleness, like we’d hold a baby –hardest to do, but so important not to turn away from. This reminds me of Pema Chodran saying to lean into our pain, our “stuckness.”  Also of a piece I wrote for The Heron Spirals which I will quote below.  Again, maybe others will feel it is relevant to their own journey….

Some years ago I watched a video interview with an Orthodox rabbi who declared, “Often the holiest place to be is the place of being stuck and not knowing what to do.”  I was so stunned by his words that I had to play the sequence (part of the back story of the film “Trembling Before G-d”) over and over again, to get my Quaker/Protestant head and heart to understand Rabbi Greenberg fully.   He went on to explain that, “Unlike other religions where beatitude and calm and certain faith are the core of the religious experience, [in Judaism] debate and uncertainty and challenge” are central.  He even said that for Jews “God revels in our struggle to make sense of our world and ourselves. . . .”   What a radical attitude!  To me, my “I don’t know place” has been a very uncomfortable if not hellish place, a state of mind to get out of as soon as I can.  But what if it is holy?  What if the very process of “waiting patiently for Way to open,” as Quakers phrase it, is not simply to be endured, but welcomed?  What a phenomenal, completely different point of view for me!  As a woman in midlife who almost relentlessly seeks stillness and a sense of Divine purpose, can I shift my perspective to welcome my inner struggles?  At the very least, can I stop feeling that my inner life of uncertainty is somehow bad?  O Great Mystery, help me not only to “wait patiently…” but to enjoy — even revel! — in my condition, to know I am engaged with the holy.

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Progress towards publication, and NEWS!

Jul 24 2012

Some exciting news has passed through my writing life in the past month, and it is high time I posted it here:

In late June the CBC publicized its so-called “Long List” of successful submissions to the “Canada Writes” Creative Non Fiction Competition, for 2012, and a piece I crafted from three small essays in my as yet unpublished mss, The Heron Spirals was one of the 33 selected!  I felt thrilled to get that far, out of 2100 submissions, and then — to be honest — disappointed not to make the “Short List.”
Nonetheless, getting that first status confirmed my sense that the book I now intend to self publish is indeed worthwhile, and the notification arrived at a very appropriate time.  Summer months are when I work on my writing with more focus than during my religious education contract months at the Unitarian Church of Montreal, and I am now embarked on several dedicated-to-the-book chunks of the calendar, interspersed with some family visits.  High on my list of tasks are chewing over the comments from several readers and meeting with an editor, then a designer. . . . Roll on, The Heron Spirals:  A Commonplace Book . . . !


The title brings me to a question:  how many people out there know anything at all about “commonplaces”?  I explore it briefly in the foreword to my book, with these words:
[This book is] . . . a collection resembling the old commonplace books.  Since the 15th century, and the increasing availability of paper for writing, “commonplaces” have been a kind of themed personal scrapbook, filled with writing of interest to each book’s creator.  Commonplaces are best known in England; the protagonist in The English Patient used his copy of Herodotus as a commonplace book.  In Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events a number of characters keep commonplace books. In this age of the internet, some writers have drawn analogies between web blogs and commonplaces; sites like Pinterest, which provide both visual and verbal collections of what interests the creators, might be electronic commonplaces.  Whatever the label, welcome to this journal-keeper’s musings on herons, on Spirit and on a rich and complex life, complemented by the work of so many others.
So a further question, then is:  does that explanation give you, the reader, enough information to continue willingly, perhaps with curiosity?  I myself am curious to know what you think!  Please leave a comment or contact me directly. . .

 

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The Strange and Magical Phenomenon of School Reunions!

May 26 2012

Where have I been lately, you may wonder, and why have I written nothing here on this blog?  Well, hard as I find it to believe, it is 50 years since my brother and I graduated from a fine Quaker school In Pennsylvania, that was actually only two miles from our home (the house where our youngest sister lives today, in fact!) outside Philadelphia.  In  a big way, those 50 years have absorbed my time for the last few months.

50 years makes a difference!

me at the reunion, May 11, 2012

Sometime, maybe two years ago, our reunion committee got to work, and eventually asked everyone to send in reports on/photos of their lives which would be published in a class book:  it was a good idea, I thought, but I did nothing.  By last fall they asked me to be in charge of rounding up writers for, or writing up myself, the pages for classmates who had died, one of whom was my brother.  I took it on, and discovered it is HARD to explain the path of my life in under 500 words!  I also learned a lot about a cousin and another couple classmates I never knew very well, plus re-established contact with my brother’s in-laws (Hilary and his wife Greta were both killed in Ecuador in 1986, for seemingly simple reasons of greed and violence).  That all took way more time than I’d ever imagined . . . . and so I didn’t write here!

me, Class of 1962

The class of ’62 book arrived in the mail in April, and I got lost in reading so many tales of lives lived in so many ways, reported with greater variations of satisfaction, reflection, concern, reticence or explanation than I had even dreamed were possible.  And THEN It was early May, time to attend the reunion, go back to Westtown as one of the old folks I had disdained in my day.  I would see those people face to face with whom I had only been in touch sporadically over my years of going off to India, marrying an Englishman, and emigrating to Canada, talk to many I had hardly known or had lost track of.

What an intense experience it was, all crammed into a Friday evening through Sunday afternoon, and the flights/train journeys from (and back to) Montreal.  But 55 of a potential 88 people came, and it was awesome, though I am still digesting much of it.  If you’d like to read my report to the school alumni magazine, click here.  If you’re thinking about a similar event, my advice is GO, even if it feels silly or pointless — you will discover you have ALL grown, and it is good!

 

 

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Does personal = political tonight?

Feb 20 2012

I am not usually an early morning person, enticing as the slanting sunlight of a fresh day may look.  The problem is, I am too prone to staying up late, getting things done that there never seems to be enough time for. I squeeze those late hours — and then have to sleep in the morning, though I often wake briefly and eyeball the weather, before covering my eyes with a sleep mask and drifting off again.

But last Thursday was different –I had gone to bed early, for me, so I could get up betimes and go join a demonstration downtown, against the privatization of public services and raising of univeristy tuition fees in Quebec, sponsored by a coalition that includes the food depot where I volunteer.  I had been thinking in particular about the problems I recently learned of in relation to Quebec Hydro [check out the excellent documentary “Seeking the Current” about irrelevant hydro dams in the 21st century, at http://www.seekingthecurrent.com/film/ –as they say, if you pay an electricity bill, this is a must-see!].  This no longer social-democratic, but increasingly capitalist company will be charging the public more and more for its hydroelectric power over the next few years in order to pay for their Romaine River project.  Unfortunately, times have changed since the days of building the Churchill Falls Dam, and this project is way more costly — both in terms of dollars and damage to the environment — to build than helping the province to develop many alternatives sources of energy and most especially, to reduce hydro consumption with green building practices.

Having seen this beautiful and disturbing film, I wanted to speak out, and that’s why I managed to get myself down to the metro station at 8:30 am to meet my fellow demonstators and show up at Montreal’s World Trade Centre.  It turns out that not only could I not find my colleagues at the agreed meeting place, but that the actual protest was going on almost entirely in French, which I really don’t speak [that’s a different subject, for another day — suffice to say I wish I did!].  So after staying long enough to survey all the groups who were represented, long enough for my body to be counted among the hundreds who turned out, and after enjoying the drum performance going on, I decided to walk up to Sherbrooke and take a bus home again.  Ironically, I would arrive back around the time I was usually just making my first cup of tea!

En route, unfortunately, I broke a law I barely knew existed –I saw a bus coming and hurried to cross an at-that-point-empty street without the correct pedestrian light. I made it to the bus, only to have a police officer tap me on the shoulder, ask for my ID, and rudely demand, in poor English, that I follow him.  I complied; we ended up at his cruiser where he had me stand, made no attempt to explain what he was doing, and proceeded to issue me a ticket, to my dismay.  In truth, I did go against the light, but as a walker and biker, I often do so — carefully — and I feel chastened by getting the fine; it probably will help me remember to respect the traffic signals more of the time.

The real issue, however, seems more related to the demonstration just a few blocks south than to traffic safety.  Remember, that police officer was not a polite one, and it seemed to me he was almost looking for someone to provoke him into being the heavy law-enforcer.  I don’t know if there were extra police in that area because of the protestors, but I did learn that later on the police pepper-sprayed participants and arrested four people for blocking access to buildings around Square Victoria.  My past experience with political demonstrations did make me wonder, once again, how we have ”evolved” to be a society where human beings in uniforms — often excessively defended ones — are so callous about the real needs of other humans.  And there’s the larger question of how DO we make our voices heard, how do we speak up for the Romanine River system, or for poor people who need better housing, when the big trucks — or guns — roll in?  I am glad I saw the film, glad I made a sign for marchers to carry, and glad I went to demonstrate for a more just world, even if it cost me $37.50 that morning!

You know, one good documentary perhaps attracts another, so I also want to mention an additional must see. “Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us?” is a beautiful yet alarming film exploring the relationship between monocrops, pesticides, agribusiness and the growing incidence of “Colony Collapse Disorder” and the global bee crisis.  I saw it the evening afte getting the ticket, and the upshot of my day’s political activities/consciousness raising is a new resolve.  For months now I have been saying to myself and others that I must write to my MP about this or that concern, but I haven’t done it, and now I am determined to do so.  It’s a small gesture, but a place to start.  Stay tuned — I think I will stay up tonight til I have written the first of the series!  There’s a lot on my mind, and a lot we need to do.  I feel ready, feel a kinship with bees and white water rivers driving me forward.

 

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GRATITUDE needs no special observance

Nov 23 2011

Canadian Thanksgiving was back in October, on the second Monday of the month, when the weather was very warm and sunny, not snowy and blustery as today in Montreal.  Still, I happen to be in thankful mode today, for reasons I will explain below, and I am thinking of many friends and family members in the USA, preparing to celebrate the 4th Thursday of November tomorrow.

I am currently in a little “deep listening” group at the church where I work, and our assignment this week, as it happens, was to read and reflect on “gratitude,” and I’m excited to have crafted TWO poems on that topic.  Here’s one of them, which I am so glad to have had time and space to create!

GRATITUDE

What am I grateful for, you ask?  To begin,

for the match that lit the candle (such a light task) here

beside my desk.  Then, for the entire box of wooden

red heads, made by modern machines these days, but

descended down through ages from our ancestors’ flints,

striking stone upon stone, catching the tender sparks,

the tiny flame to create fire, to bring heat, cook meat,

dry the damp tinder, ward off the winter’s snow and ice,

illuminate the dark night’s unknowns.  For all brightness.

 

Centuries of building hearths, collecting fuel,

conserving embers, all concentrate in this slim stick,

with its chemical crown, which I hold and strike so quickly

across the sandy paper panel provided to meet its match.

The captive, coloured end ignites almost effortlessly,

so I may see to write here that I simply give thanks

for this common, quick-spent, wand of pale wood,

and for these words that would make poetry.

 

 

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On the train, moving slow enough for poetry

Nov 12 2011

One of the joys of living in Montreal is that there is a direct , cheap train to New York, and the journey between the two cities is –yes, slow, but– incredibly beautiful!  I first experienced it as I traveled north along the icebound Hudson, one January morning, and rejoiced in writing this haiku:

Train’s journey northward:
winter shoreline, cliffs, ice floes,
wind rough river, light!

Next I took the train when I was in a mental, emotional and spiritual turmoil, traveling to see my likely-dying sister, in early June.  The trees along Lake Champlain were still in that wonderful new-green stage, and the occasional upclose view of huge glacial rock faces, or far off blue mountains was enticing.  When I finally arrived at my sister’s bedside I was so thankful for those calming hours of looking out the window, writing some, reading some, napping, eating, walking . . . I had not known how much I needed that buffer between my regular life and Anne’s hospice situation at my nephew’s home.

Now, during early November’s last warm days, I have made a short round trip on this same route.  I’m wise now about sitting on the left side of the train car for both directions:  lake view southbound til dark; river view on the morning return trip, and then wetlands beside the lake til sunset coming back north.  Once again, I had an abundance of time, and found myself writing a bigger poem, about that phenomenon you surely have pondered, the way birds seem to know to space themselves in relation to one another.  So, recalling how my heart both soared and settled with the birds as I traveled, I offer you this to savour as slowly as the train click-clacked on:

Here are my queries, sent out to the landscape I scan:
How is it that pigeons in a flock will fly in parallel formation?
I’m pondering these questions…. Many starlings perched in line:
how have they all come to stillness, facing the same direction?

What of Canada geese, yes, their migration Vs understood,
but what about them bobbing on the bay in the early morning,
how are they all able to place their white-feathered backsides,
near-triangular, in such regular patterns, a bird checkerboard?

Their soft, living goose bodies, catching the bright light together
–how is that resting alignment achieved, how bird-learned?
How do they know, I have wondered, to orient westward,
each one holding a certain space, their similar shapes
in geometrical progression across the rippling water?

And this morning (sunrise about two hours ago), the day’s glow
points out a row of old pilings, marching along the riverbank,
every weathered pole crowned with a white-grey gull,
maybe ten of them, beaks to the south, all tails turned north,
attentive to some hidden guidance.  These sentinels poise,
mysteriously knowing more of the journey than I do,
their shining breasts perhaps sun-burnished signposts,
showing how we, too, can stand so still, be so attuned.

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mortality musings

Aug 10 2011

August 9th, Nagasaki Day

Perhaps this quiet anniversary of the second nuclear holocaust inflicted on Japan in 1945 is an appropriate day to think about bodies, about my own body.  For some months now I have been caught up in my sister’s struggle with, and eventual death from, metastasized breast cancer.  Hers was the fourth death from cancer in my immediate family, and although I don’t actually feel or fear that cancer will cause my human life to end, as well, I have certainly been ruminating on mortality in the weeks since Anne passed on.

Those weeks have been full, partly with all that was needed to finish work so that I would be free for the summer season.  Also, I spent nine days with Anne and many family members before her death, then attended  Anne’s wonderful Quaker memorial “service” in Pennsylvania, and visited our youngest sister afterwards.  After that, at last I could figure out the details of a long-planned trip to England.  In fact, I wrote up the meeting for worship to celebrate Anne’s life on the plane to London!  In between visits to various family members and friends here, I have additionally completed a reading list of books for children about death and dying.  So my holiday time has had an undercurrent of mortality, though generally I have rejoiced in rich relationships, lovely gardens and views, and many good walks.

Along the way I wrote and rewrote the following poem, and as of today, a date when so many people died horrifically, I cannot decide whether to end my poem with a prayer or with a more fearful question about my own eventual death.  I don’t want live in a continually frightened-of-my-fate way, OR to be falsely optimistic, concerning the probability of cancer afflicting my physical self.  I hesitate to seem like a “Pollyanna” who blithely thinks she can buck the odds, but nor do I want to be saddled with fear and anxiety as I live out my good life in my so far resilient body.  And so today I choose the prayerful stance . . . .

Such beautiful breasts

O, the challenges of this tall,

Mysterious, holy body–

Aging, yes, yet whole, highly skilled;

still skiing, bike riding, strong and sturdy,

My cheerful companion through

These long, vigorous years.

 

Always my spirit has been housed

By vital bones, muscles, skin —

Thick or sometimes thin– by cartilage

And cell tissue, the bold coursing blood,

Nerves, lymph of my lengthy life cycle.

My knowledge of self anchors here–

 

But I cannot see within this form,

The lanky, friendly frame with which I live,

can’t fully comprehend its dense complexity.

In that sense blind, my brave body carries me forth

to step or stride, hold or heave, rest or revolve:

I love this flesh-and-bone home, however old.

 

Now, of all my aging physical parts,

My two beautiful breasts most please me,

small, smooth, shapely –are they sixty-six? No, less —

they blossomed with puberty, from buds to bosom.

They have responded –arching, shivering–

To love-making; suckled my milky babes,

Refused brassieres, resisted disease.

 

These nipple-crowned, creamy half pears

Are no longer pert, yet neither do they appear

Wizened, wrinkled, wasted.  My sweet breasts

Seem almost free of time’s distortions.

No scars or stitches mar their fine whiteness,

No pendulous flesh stretches far toward mortality.

 

Yet, does terror hide in this present salute I craft?

Mother and two sisters have lost their bodies, their breath,

Their good lives, through harm hidden in their own soft

Chest walls:  cancer robbing them of warmth, beauty,

Of our quiet, quotidian pleasures, of their places.

I protest that unseen foe, mourn my dear ones.

 

My grief is as much for their breasts, too,

As for their life-affirming smiles, their quick minds

And care-full hearts.  How could those rogue cells betray

Such bountiful softness, ruin those round organs of nurture?

O, may my life curve onwards, bloom further, find fruition;

May my gentle breasts never feel fear’s knife edge.

 

 

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