From Ashes

We all fall. Together, we rise.

I’m not much for stories about myself, because they are just not as interesting to me as other observations. I come from people who prefer song and talk of the unseen world. We’re not into airing, as the saying goes, the dirty laundry

But here’s one. I left school on a stretcher this Tuesday. I’ve been a teacher for almost two decades, but this was my first time as an ER patient. The fainting thing is somewhat familiar, but it has only happened one other time on campus, and that was ten years ago, in a different time, and Nurse Nancy reluctantly let me walk away against her well-meaning protests, after I drank some juice and spent thirty minutes flat on the cot in her office. I am used to the black spots in my field of vision but still bristle at the embarrassment of being so publicly vulnerable. It happens from time to time since I was a child, sometimes after some upset, and sometimes not. This week’s event would have been in the category of “not.”

Except that spending time in prone reflection while being too dizzy to do anything else allows time to wish for better answers to some of the questions asked earlier. 

Like, when did this start?

Um, as far back as I can remember––but not often.

When did it start getting worse?

Oh, December, maybe? Could be 2016, hard to say. There was a lot going on.

I made appointments, eventually. I think maybe there’s a thing going on. . .with my heart? I wrote in the online field, feeling determined at the time––but later, foolish. Each time, as the date approached, I cancelled. Because Omicron, because there were no subs, because maybe it was just age. Because who did I know that wasn’t hurting? 

The young people I meet daily are refugees of war, survivors of generational poverty, internment camps, and institutional abuse––and they are brilliant, glorious, showing up daily with radiant displays of quiet courage. I learned yesterday morning that one these students, a recent arrival from Ukraine, has just made the cheer team. I want to tell you about the glow of her face when she shared this, but lack the words. I got the news after she finished writing about the time when she saved a tiny kitten from a tree. 

We are all this kitten sometimes, I think now. Near paralyzed with terror and in need of rescue.

I cannot think of anyone I see regularly who isn’t working daily against a state of near collapse. Okay, I can think of a few, but we are constitutionally so different that they are hardly valid comparison points. They would not have fainted when they learned about certain horrors of human history, past or present, and they are infinitely cooler than I will ever be. They would not be seen shaking, sweating, or crying in public. Then again, what do I know? I always think I’m alone until I fall apart after trying not to for an extended period of time. Each time I have publicly collapsed under some private grief, so many generous others have shared similar stories that the abundance of company often left me stunned with wide-eyed gratitude.

My people are practically made for liquefying, which might explain the low sodium levels and chronically low blood pressure. We cry with our whole bodies, nonstop. The Irish ancestors called it keening. The women would carry the laments in their bodies and pass them to the next generation. When they keened, they were like birds, like chimpanzees, like horses reared on hind legs, shrieking. They were forbidden to own horses of a certain value as they were forbidden to read, and the keening was known to incite such passions in the hearers that it was outlawed. To be clear, we laugh this way, too, and love. And celebrate the babies.

After my release, my siblings and I had a few laughs trading stories about who among us had passed out when and where and how dramatically, and who had emphatically halted the calling of an ambulance for lack of health insurance at critical moments. My daughter made me a bracelet to wear as a reminder: Mom, you gotta tell people sometimes. When this is happening. So, I am practicing. 

It’s so much, isn’t it? — being human now. I can barely keep up, except by knowing I am not alone in this overwhelm. The moments just before I am lying on the floor feel barely distinguishable from this year’s daily version of dizzying overwhelm and heart-crushing grief. 

Why bother sharing this, except for Mom, you gotta––? Except to note that sometimes all that is needed, to regain consciousness, is a moment of rest and oxygen? Except to underscore that sometimes I wish that instead of a moment of silence we might have a moment of wild shrieking, arm-waving, wing-flapping lament, drenching our clothes until we are all on the floor in solidarity with our dead, before we rise again, into something we’re not able to become until we stop what is happening right now. Except to honor the loving reassurance of those who came to my aid, who helped me when I could not see, and to remind myself and anyone who may need to hear this now, how during any given life, moments like this make all the difference.

Thank you for being this difference. It is truly a matter of life over death, love over hate and despair, and sight over the moment when everything goes dark all at once. 

Love and light, onward.

This Mourning

Still life with children.

Overheard, in the garden: Peter, put your sword away. 

Now is the time for your attention. 

If this to be a becoming, you cannot hold your guard. 

It is impossible to bend into another body 

while remaining upright. Hold another.

For what?

A dark hour. Then, keep holding. Wait.

***

In mourning, we unknow ourselves. 

This is not an affirmation, 

not a possibility or an idea.

***

What is it, then? 

To stand in grief with any other, 

bodies bowed to collect 

what won’t fit in the borders 

of any one, is to accept 

a constant invitation 

to unknow myself. 

I was never a beginning 

or an end––once or now, 

and will never be. 

Only we are here. 

Hold.

Embodied Poetics

Years ago, amid a different terror, one concern was a sort of numbness. I remember what the poet said about attention to the senses. This is an act of resistance, he said. To survive the war and still do poetry, this is defiance of the death machine.

It can be done without a pen. You want to know what poetry in motion looks like? The poet asks.  A man walks to safety from an active bombardment zone. . . His two cows walk with him.

I am thinking of this as I am noticing how there comes a point of being saturated with images of shelled buildings, bodies in the street, and I observe the creep of a familiar numbness. I walk from the screen to put my nose in the fur of our cat, run fingertips across my daughter’s watercolor painting. Birds at sunset.  A mind can say live, but a body needs so many reminders, all of them in the senses: this is why, and this, and this.

When I return, it is to celebrate a mother who lost her father the day before the invasion, who drove with her husband under sirens and past tanks, making arrangements until it was time to leave with the children and the dogs. How they left the car to walk the last ten miles, how the walk was hard on the oldest dog, Pulya, who kept falling. How she carried Pulya, how he let himself be carried over her shoulder, with silent acceptance. How the husband stayed behind in a village with no water or food, using firewood to heat the home, tending for the old ones who can’t leave.

It is our love, this woman said, that gives me strength now.

***

Inspired by the wild love of those persisting in the face of horrific violence, and by poet Ilya Kaminsky’s recent observation about poetry in motion, italicized above. I first encountered the story of Alisa Teptiuk, who carried her dog to safety, in this article.

Enigmas of Entanglement

The ties that bind.

If loving begins in recognition, then practice reading one another is an essential beginning, and a sincere effort demands that some limits be placed on noise. One of the effects of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, is to turn down the static so the neural signals––of, say, the smell of another’s body, or a distress cry––can come in clearly, which calls to mind some old questions about trees falling in the forest, and the health of forests and one another. If a cry happens and no one hears, what are we? Any loving observer, beholding another’s vivid hues, exquisite detail of sparkling eyes, wonder of resting face, music of laughter––will tell you, mystery. Only mystery. 

***

Loosely inspired by Bob Holmes’ recent Knowable Magazine article, “Oxytocin’s effects aren’t just about love.”

Between Friends

Notes for a feast.

Collect the fallen fruits of old labors by the light of a full moon. Wade in the water to rinse, then pat dry. Meanwhile, dice the insults, the past indignities, the collected impossibilities and memories of grade school wounds, lost pets, and burned skins. Steam gently on low heat. Now return to the bowl of hopes set aside to rise in a dark place. Knead vigorously on a floured surface for the length of three songs, longer if desired. Set to rise again. Cover and repeat. We’ll score it eventually, with some symbol of our own invention. We’ll bake it golden, display it on a special tray, cut into it while it’s still crackling hot, pass out fat slices to all assembled and serve it with the good butter. Mouths water at the dream, but don’t worry, there is bread already made. It’s on the table right now. We won’t be hungry. It is good to be kneading this together, this now and coming communion. May the nourishment of the earth be yours.

***

Inspired by John O’Donohue, who taught me the Celtic term Anam Cara, loosely translated as “soul friend.” And by my soul’s friend. The italicized line above is from O’Donohue’s poem “Beannacht” (Gaelic for “Greetings”).

Facing the Lion

No show, just a portrait of strength.

Persistence like a river until it’s bled dry, and no temper. Here is no coercion, no brash announcements, no bold statements. Most of what she is saying, facing what others call this beast, is so subtle it sounds like nothing. 

Everything is the opposite of nothing. Something is also the opposite of nothing. A robe but no armor, her hands in the mane, so near the jaw. He leans into her and she holds.

Someone wants to know who is calling the shots, but there are no calls happening here. No shots. Here is a wild creature renowned for ferocity, a feared killer, at rest. She is with him. They are breathing, still.

What the Dog Had to Say

About Us Returning to Wherever it Was We Were Going All Day

You don’t have to do this, he told us. There are ways to go missing. I will place the phone in that spot where I hide my bones. It will be safe and so will you. 

We can leave suggestions explaining our absence. That we were thinking of playing a game where we hike through a blizzard with minimal supplies, or through the desert with minimal water. We can suggest that you were testing a theory that you could get all you need from cacti. We can leave visible clues about our plans to to fly over the Bermuda Triangle, and perhaps to various remote islands and mountain towns, accessible only via small planes, and leave notes about the rock-bottom rates we found for flights with independent contractors who used only first names and required a ten-page waiver. We can mail copies of the waiver to those places where you go.  

We can go for our walks at night. You can wear your glasses and your hat and that thing over your face. You can carry a cane, put a vest on me. I’ll pretend I’m your guide.

Let me. I won’t even bark if they come to the door. Let’s hide together instead. We can go under the table and wait until they leave. We can keep them away.

Here is my head, take it. And my paw. Here, let me expose for you my softest flesh. Here I am on my back, is this enough?! I have been waiting for you, take it! You can, you can! You can stay. I will wait. Watch me. 

What We Miss When We’re Not Looking

We need healing more than ever now, in many ways. How often we are pushed to forget what this means.  

This is a story about loss and healing, adapted from a story I read in the Salem News earlier this week.

God forbid, Mary would think, at the slightest thought of cat against car. She would take off her own shirt, wrap the body, clutch it to her chest. Use her own mouth as needed. A soft toothbrush would be better, to mimic the mother’s tongue. She would rock and hold and hum, use a dropper to feed if she had to, until well.

But when Max disappeared, there was no body, only an open screen, as if to say, here is the trace of love leaving, and it reminded her back to similar spaces, too many to count. The cool side of the bed, the left-behind toys, the unnecessary landline that only solicitors called, which she kept active anyway, just in case.

Max, she called. Max! He did not come. She called every shelter, even a pet psychic. She walked the neighborhood. She drove the surrounding neighborhoods.  She looked differently at every bush, every alley and drainpipe, gulley and ditch.

Phonecall, phonecall, phonecall. Hour, hour, day. Weeks, then months. Then it was years. An ache like that will swallow a person whole unless they find something else to do with it.

She found some others with similar aches, needing someplace to put them. They went about finding the lost kittens. They brushed them with toothbrushes, wrapped them in clean towels, bottle fed them until they could eat. They paired them with the mother cats who had lost their babies. They took in dogs, too. A few birds. They took in so many that they needed a bigger space. They became an organization, a shelter, an adoption center, a rescue for animals and each other. 

Max, by the way, came back. This was six years later. He had fleas in his ear but was otherwise fine. 

I can’t help but wonder how much good would never have happened if Max hadn’t decided to go and stay missing when he did. About all the littles that would have died in the elements, undiscovered, if no one was looking with such an ache. Or about all the lonely people wandering without any place to put their dangerous aches, becoming dangers to themselves and others. All that needed saving, left untended. All the answers to other questions, left undiscovered without the first one, Where is Max?

The pleas of others that might have been missed, except that someone was listening in earnest, for answers to their own.  I’m reminded how often I’ve been moved by loss and heartbreak, into places I would otherwise never have found.  I suspect that much of the visible light in others is a function of what escapes through the breaks.

If Max had not returned, this would still be a redemption story, but I wouldn’t know it. Not because there wasn’t a shelter created after he left, but because the creation of the shelter was something long and slow, and not the sort of event that lends itself to a story in the news. A disaster works for a story, if not its aftermath. Same with a sudden victory. The essentials are there – who, what, where, and when, at least, if not why. 

Growth in numbers is a news story. But numbers are abstractions, not living things. When it comes to the healing and growth of living things and human creations, sometimes there is only a why, to begin with. Who, what, where, when – these emerge over time, and they tend to be diffuse, influenced by many people, doing many things, in numerous places and ways, over and across time, slowly, in ways that are neither sudden nor singular nor dramatic. In fact, if you show up looking for something on which to report, in any given growth area, what you find may look like nothing at all.  Loving patience is a practice, and as such it is almost never a happening. Loving patience is what allows the living to grow and heal. We need healing more than ever now, in many ways. How often we are pushed to forget what this means.  The question is ever, What’s Happening?  and the answers we tend to find in response tend to be the ones that have us perpetually missing the greater possibilities in a given moment. 

Real growth and real change is slow work, and often looks like nothing to report. Unless you look hard and long, the way only someone with a full or aching heart will do, unable to stop.

The story that inspired this post can be found here. I’ve taken liberties with names, backgrounds, and imaginative elements, as appropriate for my wondering purposes. 

Who is This For? (Part 3)

Those needing shelter. Those who know to offer it when needed, even when they don’t know how. Those hiding scars and recent wounds, and those who know how to recognize the wounded, everywhere.

Who is this for?  

Those who have known the anguish of caring, and the terror of an all-consuming love. Who have sometimes been terrified by the range and volume of other emotions, identified as harbored within themselves, ready to erupt.

Who have been moved near weeping on occasion, at the flow of a good pen, or at the way that someone had the patience to slice grapes, one by one, in tiny circles and half-moons, for folding into a family-style dinner salad, offered to strangers. Who need art with a hunger often sharper than the need for food. Who don’t understand how anyone can find any level of emotional display actually shocking, because even if they practice restraint fastidiously, with the faith of an earnest devotee, they know how close they are, at any moment, to losing it all.

Who cry in witness to beauty, with the sheer relief of finding someone who cares enough to look long and hard, taking it in, who even in the satisfaction of some total consummation with divinity, chooses not to stop in the afterglow, but returns to the ache, caring enough to look long and hard–– to offer it back up, all of it, to anyone looking.

“Shelter” by Mark Kidsley on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 Genericlicense. 

People who can remember or imagine a circus tent on fire, and the terror of the blocked entrance. Those who look at the exit signs long and often, and also at the sky.

People who lose things: cats, dogs, loves, ideas, directions, the name of the song they are always almost having, on the tips of their ever-licking tongues. People who find things, too. Especially broken and lost bits of others, waiting on the ground underfoot.

Those who hold babies. Those who avoid holding the offered babies, for fear that the heart will shatter too loudly. The babies and the former babes––and the very old, so close to death that nothing but the wide lens will do. Or the magnifying glass, to study the favorite wrinkles fanning out, like bird wings spreading around the corner of beloved eyes.

Those needing shelter. Those who know to offer it when needed, even when they don’t know how. Those hiding scars and recent wounds, and those who know how to recognize the wounded, everywhere. Anyone familiar with the sense of their own eyes floating behind them, up and over like a kite, looking down.

Who know the ache of hearing a musical phrase so expansive, familiar, and hauntingly rich that they want to climb inside and live in its space until time evaporates.

As I began to understand that there would be no end to the list, and no reason to work towards one, I decided to pause, with an intention to revisit it from time to time, as with certain records, occasional prayers, and pilgrimages, as a reminder back to some original impulse for finding shelter in a strange land.

Big and Little: a Reunion

You announced, Play a game, and you returned me––back to what I’d learned how to renounce. 

BIG
I held you in my arms and breathed against the silence. Then, when you were speaking, you announced, Play a game, and you returned me––back to what I’d learned how to renounce. 

When you were speaking you announced, Tell me a riddle! and I held you high above me toward the stars. Here is how to croon what I am learning to announce, of wonder: here is Venus, now Orion; there a satellite, now Mars.

And everything we shared came out in singsong, and every note within it came out true. Teach me spaghetti by the moonlight, drink a spring song. Everything contained a season; it was you, in this loving cup, now brimming, lands the chorus of a soul; long bent on new receiving, long past dying in its hole. Would you wait and listen for the riddle I would tell, beyond the point of speaking past this silence of this well?

Where I have fallen will you find me, if I give you certain clues; will you listen if I play now, every verse of these late blues?

I’m finding now a riddle, and I’d sing it if I could; but I’m out of rhymes, so share here: once, man living, cut for wood.

What’s tall when young, short when old, and can die in a single breath?

This is the end of the time when we rhyme.  But wait!  Consider these words. Another puzzle goes like this. I kept it for you: Consider a fork in the road. 

A stranger in a strange land arrives at an intersection: East or West? One will take you to your destination, the other to hopeless despair. At the fork, two men. Each knows the way, but one always lies. What to do?


LITTLE
Remember how we used to play the guessing game?

Animal, vegetable, mineral: over time, like this: whenever the seahorse, during the age of the narwhal, from time to time, the tortoise––sooner or later, a ferret.

From time to time, a gem squash as long as an English cucumber. In the meantime, this heirloom tomato, and all of a sudden- Rutabaga!

At this instant, taste the snap-peas, until zucchini, okra, chives, until adamantine and agate, since granite, garnet, jacobsite.

Before, until now. Ever after, return. Again!

BIG
Back to the crossroads question, and the two men. Remember this: ask either, “What direction would the other say?”  Whatever you hear, do the opposite, and you will be on the right path.

Whatever you hear, take my hand, in this silence, where I’ve fallen, show me:  Laugh!


LITTLE
[laughing]

Again!

“Baby elephant” by Georg Sander on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic license.