the ladder upSome years ago, when riding home in the family car from her grandmother’s house, my little girl sat up front, making the most of time alone with me her Mom, as that noisy baby slept in the back. She looked at the sky.  “If I could make a big enough ladder,” she said pensively, “I could climb there.”

Time keeps slipping for me this week. I think of the cold night earlier this month when I found myself in a florist’s greenhouse. It was near suppertime, but the shoppers there seemed reluctant to depart this damp Eden with its glass walls and ceilings all misted over with moisture.

Then time slips again to a long-ago night: Our then six-year-old had gone to bed. Downstairs, his father was playing his weekly bridge game with his pals. Elsewhere in the house, our other kids attended to the night’s homework. Then here came suddenly a sound of weeping, faint at first, but building in despair as it built in duration.

Our six-year-old appeared suddenly at my bedroom door. It was he who wept so. What was it?, I asked rushing toward him. A bad dream? He shook his head no. A pain? No again.

He sat on the edge of our bed and, after a long time, did his best to convey it: “I was thinking about death,” he finally whispered. “How when you die  you just have to lie there. Forever.”

“Ah but most people don’t believe that. None of us has been there of course, but most people picture Heaven.”

“I don’t want to go to Heaven!” he burst out. What would I do there? What do people do when they’re  there?”

I remembered an image that had comforted me once. “Well, they say it’s like a big party and everyone you ever loved is right there in the room with you –  and your old pets, and the toys you lost and thought you’d never see again…”

“But even a party can go on too long.” He shook his head sadly. “And what if there is no Heaven and you just…..end?”

“I don’t think it’s like that,” I said, hugging him now and swallowing back my own tears. “Why don’t you stretch out here a while?”

And so he did, as I busied myself nearby. Thirty minutes later, he was still curled in a tense ball.  I went over and lay down beside him; buried my face in his little-boy neck. “Listen!” I said at last. “Can you hear all those sounds? Daddy downstairs with his pals? Two kinds of music? Your brothers and sisters all talking and moving around?”

He nodded his head without opening his eyes.” Always you will have that: other people all around you. No one is alone, you know.”

“I know,” he whispered, and gave a final shuddering sigh.

He had looked over the edge into that terror. Most people look there exactly once, then get to work building a structure against it, whether you call it belief in the hereafter or faith in one’s fellow men or That Which Does Not Die.

I can’t say if  that youngest child of mine began building his then and there. I can tell you that as far as I know he never wept like that again.

In that wintry greenhouse, I watched the clerk wrapping a plant against the cold with all the care of one easing a baby into a snowsuit. So. I told myself, there is this care, then.

There are the long bars of sunlight, winter or summer.

There are the voices of others as you slip into sleep.

And then there’s that ladder, which, built of strong enough stuff and fastened with Belief, may let us climb it upward after all.


As the Funerals Continue

Today, as the funerals continue, I think of the first time I heard the song Suo Gan, sung by a very young Christian Bale in Spielberg’s heart-rending 1987 film Empire of the Sun.

It’s an Old Welsh lullaby, always sung in Welsh and the translation of one verse goes like this:

To my lullaby surrender, Warm and tender is my breast
Mother’s arms with love caressing Lay their blessing on your rest
Nothing shall tonight alarm you, None shall harm you, have no fear
Lie contented, calmly slumber On your mother’s breast…

I won’t say more now but only offer for us all imperishable music,  the lullaby itself,  from the throats of these youth:

We Are Here. We Leave a Mark

Evensong_in_York_MinsterIn light of the horror that unfolded Friday in Newtown, it is easy to believe we make a scant mark for good in the world – that we are each just another account number at the bank, another face on the morning train. There’s even a philoso­phy to suggest as much, as in the comment made by the Spanish sage. “Place your finger in a bucket of water,” he said. “Then pull it out and see what a hole you have made,” the melancholy thought being that the waters close over us and we are forgotten.

I don’t buy it.

I once visited the old walled city of York in England, where the earth had been draped and clamped and laid open like a surgical patient so citizens of today could look upon the painstaking process of archeology.

inisde jorvik

At the end of the Disneylike underground ride through a re-creation of the old Viking village of Jorvik, you see a cross-section of the earth itself, sliced straight down as you would slice a fruitcake, and holding within it bits of pottery, and metal, and animal and human bone.

This is what happens, I thought at the time: You live and you die and you’re tamped down into a pudding of mud.

Lucky for me, our group went just after to a Ves­pers service at the house of worship called the York Minster, built a full thousand years ago.

We heard music written back then, woven in words penned at the time of King David, then held and sent forth pure and clear from the living throats of elders, and youths, and little boys not yet ten.

Words live, then, and music lives, even as good deeds and careful instruction lives, to a far greater degree than most of us realize and long after our little lives have yielded to ultimate gravity and fluttered to the ground like the glorious crimson leaves.

I picked up some photos last night from that shoe box I talked about yesterday.

I had taken them the day my youngest started kindergarten.

Here he is smiling shyly on the lawn, squinting a bit against the horizontal glory of early-morning sun.

Behind him the lavish branches of that certain stand of maples wave brashly to the camera.

Before him, invisible to me until now, visible to him some time ages hence perhaps, on the lettuce-green grass, the clear and unmistakable shadow of his mother.

However hard that may be to believe at times, we do leave a mark on the world. We do.

And now, a version of Pslam VIII sung in that great cathedral, very much like the one I heard when I visited there.

All That We Don’t Understand

 What’s nice about the writing life is you’re never really alone in it. Yes, you may start out alone carrying your armful of fuel down the road in the form of the images you use and the stories you tell, but then suddenly here comes this nice other person who offers to help you carry the kindling all the way to the hearth, as fuel for your ‘fire.’ 

What I’m trying to say is that that person is your reader, and your reader meets you halfway on any road, coming with his own fresh take on things. He or she sees what you’re trying to say, sometimes more clearly than you see it yourself. I think this is why telling what happened to me, telling what ideas burbled up in my mind can act as such an antidote to loneliness, leading me forth out of the stuffy closed room of my mind.

I wrote the other day about how my young grandchild seemed to have somehow lodged himself inside the Play Place structure at McDonald’s and was sobbing inside it.

I had no clue what to do and that was the story I thought I was telling here Tuesday.

It wasn’t until I got to the end of my telling that I suddenly saw the whole event as a metaphor for parenthood: Our kids go where we can’t follow and so on. And ll of that was me carrying my fuel alone on the road. But the everything changed when this one reader name ‘met’ me on the road and added his own interpretation. In the comments section here he wrote, “Perhaps [your little grandson] was not so alone in that tube but rather quietly listening to another guide, in addition to you of course, who pointed the way back to you.”

‘Another guide’! Another Capital ‘g’ Guide! See? A wholly fresh take on the same event. 

My little grandson’s  predicament had suggested just two ideas to me. (1) I fall short as a caregiver and 2) We can’t go before the children we love, taking joy in their joy and quelling their fears. The time comes when they will go where we can never follow.

But now here was a whole look at the event, that acknowledged  what else might well be happening in this world every day, in fact, realms and realms beyond the understanding of  us bossy grownups, who are so smug in our belief  that we are the ones who move the world. Another Guide indeed! Thanks, fellow traveler. Thanks for helping me see that this child will never be alone, truly.

Why We Stay Up Late

What do we stay up late for these days?

We stay up to read about our friends on the Internet. Say what you will about Facebook, it brings you closer. There’s a woman in Colorado who once lived just five minutes from me here in New England. I knew her not at all then, except by repute as a writing tutor to the young. And I was jealous, knowing her this way. “What’s wrong with ME that I’m not a writing tutor to the young?” is all I could think when I heard her name.

Today she lives among those mountains. Somehow we found each other on Facebook and now almost I every day I feel her gentle spirit as she shares a thought or a photo. (And my, how she loves her dogs! If they added to the Seven Cardinal Virtues surely loving animals would be right up near the top.)

So we stay up to check on one another.

We stay up with sick children. Also with children having nightmares, hallucinations, irrational fears. We have them ourselves.

We stay up late to watch YouTube videos like the one I recently posted of the grand swoop of that owl with his mighty thighs and his outward-reaching talons as he comes to snatch up his prey. A video like that thrills us, clear witness as it is that something is coming for us too, something fierce and strong.

I stayed up so late a few nights ago I had a kind of waking dream. It was of my grandfather about whom I have never dreamed even once since his death 50 years ago.

As a small child I felt so safe living in his house as we did. In my dream I didn’t notice him until someone said “Hey did you see who’s here?” and there he was, working in the garden out behind the farmhouse where he passed his boyhood in the 1880s. I recognized the place because I have every picture he ever took.

Also every journal he ever wrote in.

I have his degrees, rescued from the attic and framed now, Also framed pictures of him both old and young. This picture below shows him in
his very first year as a lawyer, looking so proud to be sitting at a real desk with his own law library behind him and his assistant beside him, he who went barefoot most of the year and got to school only when they held school, the typical thing in those rural communities.

It was so nice to see him again in this waking dream. He even called me “Blackberry Top”, a name he gave me for the shiny black curls clustered tight together on my two-year-old head..

At my mom’s 80th birthday party I read aloud a letter he had written her when she was a college sophomore, eating too much and flunking French and smoking her brains out with the dorm windows flung wide to the cold night air. He knew she was doing all that – other letters were filled with admonition – but this was a birthday letter and it was only loving.

When I got done reading it aloud to all gathered there for her special day, she turned to her younger sister and said “Did you feel that Grace? He was HERE in the room!” Then, 20 minutes later, she closed her eyes and died.

Some months later, after writing to a childhood friend about what had happened, he wrote me back: “In my faith tradition we’re taught that one who loved you in life comes for you at the end. Maybe that’s what happened with your mother: her dad came for her.”

What a comforting thought! That someone comes for you, strong with beating wings, and lifts you up and carries you home.

Heard at the Coffee Shop

I was in line at the coffee shop on August 1st when a young woman appeared beside me who was evidently known to the store manager. 

“How’s it goin’?” asked her pal behind the counter.

“Great! Hey, did you know that I’m fasting?”

“Fasting, no.  Why on earth are you fasting?”

“Ramadan began yesterday. “And my boyfriend, he’s a Muslim. So I just thought, whydon’t I fast too and see what happens. Inside my mind, you know. Inside ME.”

Well now! I thought.  

Maybe this is how minds are opened, one person at a time, who admittedly is just sticking a toe in the great river of Islamic thought – of a new spiritual belief – but isn’t that the way we all begin swimming? By sticking a toe in?  

I overheard this conversation on August 1st and the next day  saw this picture with the women looking so lovely in their pale sherbet-colored garments.

The caption says they are  “Indonesian women, performing  the evening prayer called tarawih, the night before the holy fasting month of Ramadan begins.’” It was taken at the Istiqlal mosque in Jakarta.

Now, today, with the celebration of Eid al-Fitr, Muslims mark the end of the month-long fast of Ramadan and I was thinking: Our cities and towns all suspend school for Christian holy days, and many do the same for the Jewish High Holidays. Maybe one day we’ll do the same for Eid.

The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp for both of the Eid holy days  ten whole years ago, under President George W. Bush, so can other kinds of official recognition be far behind?  That’s where the real strength of this country lies, remember. It lies in our ability to welcome new people, and embrace them and learn from their ways.

It’s a good reminder: whether August 31st is Eid or the anniversary of the day your father died, or the day you got sober or the day your firstborn landed in the world, every day is sacred to someone. ‘Put thy sandals from off thy feet for the place where thou art  standing is holy ground.’   That’s Yahweh to our pal Moses.

Holy ground, this earth. Holy people, us, when we try to be.


The Love That Brought Us Here

14 years ago my husband’s mother had to be put in a nursing home due to the diminished mental capacities brought on by Alzheimer’s. There she suffered mightily until one Friday in November when she took a turn for the worse. We all hurried to her bedside. When a cart of food and beverages was wheeled in for us we got the message loud and clear: she was in her final hours.

I called our church office and told the story to the woman who picked up the phone. I did this automatically, even though our mother was not a member of our church but only an occasional visitor. Chokingly I described what her breathing was like and the way, from time to time, her eyes would open and she would look at us so pleadingly. “I know it’s Skip’s day off but I was hoping someone could help us…” I started to say.

“Oh for heaven’s sake!” the kind woman interrupted me. “Let me call him right now!”

Skip, this senior pastor of ours, was at the lumber yard at the time, elbow-deep in a construction project. Still, less than 30 minute later he walked through the door in workshirt and jeans. He saw right away how frightened we all looked.

He asked if there was anything we would like to say to this small suffering woman so dear to us all but somehow none of us could speak, paralyzed as we were by sorrow and dread.

“Well why don’t we take hands and circle her bed,” he said quietly, and so we did that.

Then he called her by her name and said something about how the love that had brought her here was the love to which she was now returning.  I can’t give you the exact words – I still have around those moments a strange sort of amnesia – but in some few hours more she did in fact return to the love that brought her here if that is indeed what we do at life’s end.

So that’s what this church of ours is like that later married our daughter and our brother to their two beloved partners, a full year before same-sex marriage became legal in our state. This church says God is still speaking and so we must not place a period where God has placed a comma. Maybe you’ll take a minute to watch this photo montage and ponder for yourself all the hope contained in a humble punctuation mark.

Lift Me

When I was young and under the influence of the nuns, I was told to keep silence on this day, at least from noon until 3 when tradition says Jesus suffered that death-by-strangulation that crucifixion is. I couldn’t do it then or for many years after, even though I knew how silence concentrates the mind.  I always thought the Jews had the better idea at the Seder, having the youngest ask that great starting-point of a question, “How is this night different from all other nights?”  which kind of translates to “Who are we and how did we get to this place?” This is a question I ask myself every morning on waking from the kind of deep sleep I always sleep, so all-forgetting I sometime wake and calmly think  ‘Soon some kind person will come and lift me from this crib!’  

For Christians today is  Good Friday . I remember the Good Friday they played “We Are the World” on practically every radio station all over the country at exactly the same hour. I was driving through beautiful western Connecticut calling on newspapers to sell them my column. I had just had my last baby and knew he was my last felt….. I don’t know, released into the rest of my life somehow. 

I spent much of yesterday driving too and just at sunset when I finally stopped the car and sat looking around, three deer crossed the field front of me and it was as if I had been waiting all day for them; as if seeing them proved that there really is this other reality just around the corner and out of our everyday sight, which is pretty much the idea communicated in most of the world’s religions.    

Here for you now accordingly ,  “We are the World,” written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, as it was sung at the funeral  of poor Michael not quite two years ago now.  Note the ecumenical symbols above the singers’ heads.

And to really walk down memory lane, treat yourself to the original version here below. And remember this week to keep holy the Sabbath, whatever form a Sabbath day has for you.

The Holy

I remember it myself, riding in the big black car that would take us to our grandfather’s casket one last time. I remember looking out the window and wondering how all those people could be having their ordinary days when such a blow had been dealt to us: the man in whose house we lived gone, his protection gone, the shelter of his income gone and nothing for us to do but find a new place to live, our mom and us two kids in our falling-down socks and our funny haircuts.

As I drove from one funeral to the other and in between got myself to the hospital for that  X-ray I have long been postponing, I noticed all the little ways that life goes forward. And yes at the funeral of John the firefighter the knees of my old friend buckled when saw me and she collapsed sobbing in her chair. And yes at the wake of Gene whose baseball team were state champs back in ‘45 and who got to try out for the Red Sox, the eyes of his children and grandchildren filled and refilled with tears as they stood all those  greeting the many who called.

But all day the rain was gentle and the air was warm and the yellow leaves shone bright on the wet black asphalt. And when an old man next to me in the X-Ray waiting room asked for help because the leg supports on his wheelchair were hurting his calves three strangers leaped from their seats to help him. And always there is the Sacred in the Everyday and the Everyday in the Sacred and the braiding of the two brings a kind of  comfort… Even a strong sort of joy as when you turn a corner on a busy street and there before you is this young and mortal woman with the gorgeous deathless music spilling like a fountain from her throat.

The Innocents Laid to Rest

When the moon rose at dusk last night it looked burdened, like the head of poor mythical Atlas stooping under the weight of Earth. I had gone for a short walk, passing the church where our four murder victims will be remembered today. The street was already lined with signs to save space for the funeral cortege as I assume, or possibly the media. “EMERGENCY NO PARKING” the signs all said, though the emergency felt far behind us now. There was a quiet feeling at that hushed hour with the birds swooping low and a plane out of Logan ascending like a prayer.

I could look in the windows of the church hall and see the Gifts and Memorials Committee at their meeting. At other hours in the week this hall plays host to other groups as well, among them the local chapter of Rotary International and those following the Steps and Traditions set down nearly 80 years ago by Bill W. and Dr. Bob. Additionally, according to the sign out front, the Cloister Concert Series will take place, tonight featuring contralto Marion Dry in an evening called “Saints and other Mortals” from 7:30 to 9:00, ice cream afterward.

Just as I passed, the Reverend Thomas Brown himself emerged from his car carrying his robes for today, freshly ironed as they looked. He seemed as burdened as poor Atlas, perhaps from standing so long in these last days by the woman who was sister and daughter and aunt to the victims; yet he had such a beautiful light-filled countenance I wished I too could attend tomorrow and hear his words of comfort.

I can’t. This morning I rose at 4:30 and worked for two hours and sit now on my front porch awaiting the very early arrival of the little boys 3 and 6 who are my grandsons; and, several hours later – because teens need their sleep – the arrival of the big boys who will help me care for them while their mama keeps a vigil by a bedside.

They say we’ll see heavy rain before the sun goes down and a hard thing it is to leave any graveside in the rain. But who knows? Perhaps a cleansing rain will bring some relief for these mourners, or at least the end of the time of the first hot tears.

In this life we are again and again delivered from sorrow without ever knowing by Whose hand. But if we could see God’s face even just once I think it would look the way Reverend Brown’s face looked last night: filled with somber care, but shining; shining.