Highwayman.jpg from Wikimedia Commons

This is a poem I wrote last month. Sometimes I write something that I particularly like. This is one of those things. I don’t know quite why. It’s about the unpredictability of life, not a particularly pleasant theme. Maybe it captures my present situation-mom dying, having to move, lots of uncertainties ahead-fairly well. I’d be interested in reactions that others have when they read it.

Our lives are often linear, 
not wavering from course, 
so that we come to think we’re on 
a road that’s without forks. 
 
As things remain the same, we will 
increasingly take hold 
of calculations that provide 
illusions of control. 
 
But change is like a highwayman 
that’s lying just ahead 
to rob us of our certainties 
and leave our plans for dead. 
 
A bone will break, a car will crash, 
pneumonia grows from coughs; 
God uses ordinary things 
to throw the balance off. 
 
He baffles and befuddles us 
disturbing our neat rows; 
the Holy Spirit hasn’t come  
to coronate the known. 

My mom died a week ago today. So this is a time of mourning, which encompasses a great deal besides sadness. One thing that has struck me is how her death has resulted in a sudden change in my focus: from micro-attention to her daily ups and downs to expanded awareness of her life as a whole. I wrote the following poem about the vista that’s been opened to me as a result.

The last few years were mostly narrow,
so that she walked through places 
where the walls were tight, 
leaving only little alcoves where she could dress
and feed and sleep. Her step had slowed 
and sometimes going on at all took exhaustive effort.  
Long ago, most with whom she traveled trickled off 
to other paths, so few still walked with her.

At last the road choked down to nothing; 
Her walking ended and instead she flew away. 
At that the vista opened and I could see 
more than the cramped confines of final days
but a totality of life. 

Yesterday, I looked at photos taken 80 years ago
and there she is, Loie then, not mom 
or grandmother, a teen reclining on the beach,
smiling impishly, dressed in a swimsuit 
that her mother wouldn’t have approved of. 

Then she’s on a teeter-totter, floral dress flowing
off the edges of the plank, delighted to be lifted 
high, among the trees.

Here she stands in snow,
black-shrouded, squinting from the cold 
and cradling the family dog as if it were 
a plump and happy child. 
A few pages on,
her boyfriend sits back-to-back with her, 
playing his accordion. He will go to war, 
then they will wed and twine together 
more than sixty years. She’s leaning into him 
and holding up a cup as if it were at toast 
to what had been and what was then 
and what was yet to come: friends and faith 
and family, a broad and blessed life. 
Goodbye, mom,
may your spirit soar.
Photo by Kasia Palitava on Pexels.com

This was my first poem of the year, written in early January while reflecting on the year past and the year to come. It’s main image comes from Isaiah 40:8–“Grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of God endures forever.” It seems appropriate both in regard to the start of Lent and the present turmoil in the world.

Grass withers and the flower fades
winter comes to take away
whatever lacks abiding root
whatever lacks tenacious truth.

For metal rusts, the moth consumes;
the wealth that promised to accrue
gives little help when health erodes
thus proving a deceptive hope.

But we are blessed, not cursed by rust
for it discourages false loves
and losing is a discipline
that lights the way when dreams have dimmed.

Grass dies and human strength erodes
the word of God continues whole--
his grace and goodness are the hinge:
he opens and we enter in. 

		
		
	

David Bailly, Vanitas. This is an example of the memento mori tradition

The last year spent isolated in response to covid19 has reminded all of us of our mortality. Now that some of us are getting vaccinated, there’s reason to hope for a gradual return to something like normal. Yet there are lessons to remember from this time. Here’s a poem I wrote about a month ago about what we’re going through; after the first couple verses, it is a conversation with death.

The ravages of death abound
in state to state, from town to town
conveyed upon the mist of breath
unholy virus, you are death.

So I avoid the best I can
death’s ravages, its frigid hand
while hundreds daily still fall prey,
be it by foolishness or fate.

My life for now is circumscribed—
lackluster days and quiet nights.
So, do I fear your dire threat?
No, but I offer you respect,

expecting we may meet one day
not battling, but in embrace,
prepared–by having had full life–
to book the journey you provide.

An ending, yes, but not the last,
for, after death mows me like grass
the king will come with trumpet’s shout,
before him death and I will bow.

This poem is a meditation on Psalm 77, a lament that seems suitable for the current moment. At the end I reference Marta C. Gonzalez, an Alzheimer’s patient who still retained a memory of her days as a ballerina. At the bottom of the page I link to a video of her that went viral.

Troubles fill the day
and spill into night.
My unresting hands reach out,
refusing sleep’s deficient comfort.

It’s not me, God, who wants
to prop my eyes ajar,
so it must be you.
I remember my night songs,
doves fluttering with hope,
and wonder where they’ve flown to.

“God, will you always be like this?
Did your unending love
reach its end?
Favor, mercy, sympathy—
have they all been chewed to pieces
by your angry jaws?”

Sometimes, I think it to be so,
but stubbornly my mind
recalls your deeds, the wonders
that my eyes have seen,
my ears have heard.

Even if I forget all else,
may your music and your dance
be so implanted in my heart
that I could be like
Marta C. Gonzalez.

She,
though wheelchaired and demented,
became again a ballerina,
filled with grace and light,
when she heard the song.

In deep autumn
the leaves have flushed
to yellow, orange, and wine;
some drain further
down to muddy brown.
Unlike animals
who add a winter coat,
trees shed their clothes–
leaves scoured away like scales.
Breezes animate leaf flurries
that descend like rainbowed snow.
They tessellate the ground
with muted beauty.

Not so long ago, trees were budding,
twigs proudly swelling
with the green vehemence of new life.
Life writes most gorgeously
in the prologue and the afterward.

Yesterday, I watched home movies
filmed by my father when I was young.
Christmases with gifts,
birthdays with cake,
throwing snowballs,
paddling in the pool
friends and relatives
scattered throughout.

How much life there is
within the space
from Spring to Fall.

Here is a reflection on Ecclesiastes 9:11 as it played out one night:

I rush, intending to be finished early—
wash the floor and vacuum,
fold up clothes and fix tomorrow’s lunch.
I’m hoping to have time to sit
out on the porch and read a bit.
All goes well until
it quickly doesn’t.

The sink is the first to balk;
the disposal chokes on a chunk of metal
dislodged from its innards.
Water spills into the space below,
soaking boxes and bottles and jugs,
a variety of oddities. Everything
needs to dry. A plumber
will have to come. Oh, boy.

Meanwhile, it’s started raining
I had left some stuff—a mask,
a paper napkin, and a music player—
on the car trunk. Soaked. Toss
the napkin, dry the mask,
will the music play?

The chair on the porch is wet as well.
No reading there tonight.
The shower curtain falls as,
too quickly, I snatch a towel
to absorb disordered water.

Swiftness does not win the race,
nor strength the fight or smarts the cash;
welcome time and chance
and watch tranquility dissolve.
Remember, Bob, that you are dust
and give to God your trust.

 

 

The description of Babylon in the book of Daniel seems oddly familiar 2500 years later. Here’s a tongue-in-cheek take on that empire and all empires from then until now:

Just settle in, assimilate
ignore your grief, ignore your ache
and when the music plays, bow down
before the king of Babylon.

You will be taught (tuition free)
all magic spells and oddities;
it may seem strange, it may seem wrong;
it’s how things roll in Babylon.

Our businessmen are savvy whores,
there’s merchandise in all the stores;
buy fig trees now on Amazon!
wealth does accrue in Babylon.

So I give thanks, at night in bed
for clothes and houses, wine and bread,
and I decide that I belong
consuming stuff in Babylon.

The king is petulant, it’s true:
“Tell me my dream, or off with you!”
The vision comes before the dawn
to men who prayed in Babylon.

There’s just a few who will not sing
their native songs, or anything.
They think instead of days begone
and turn their hearts from Babylon.

The kingdom of the Lord will come
and we’ll rejoice before the Son,
while waiting though, we still are fond
of all the charms of Babylon.

Image from newengland/today/Aimee Seavey

I live life in a bumper car
swirling around an amusement park corral.
Collisions will occur, whether by intent
or accident. Some impacts may be jolting
but family and school, church and community
have so swaddled me in a robust ring of rubber
that I bounce off whenever there’s a clash,
startled but essentially unharmed.

Some people have no bumpers to absorb the shocks,
just flimsy metal sheets that collapse on impact.
Those who flee in fear to the furthest corner
they can find are of this sort, as are those
who in pain and fury try to inflict
as many dents as they endure.
There are also the courageous.
Though unbuffered, they take it as duty
to venture out each day, knowing
that wounds await but
commending all to God.

 

Photo by Victor He on Unsplash

I continue to write poems every Sunday. Recently, I’ve focused on the devastation caused by the coronavirus. Yesterday I wrote about the remarkable ways in which our life in the public places of society have changed. The poem ends with Lamentations 3:26: “It is good to wait in silence/for the salvation of the Lord.” The book of Lamentations describes the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC., so it has much to say about life in times of sorrow and hardship.

Chairs sit in shuttered restaurants,
waiting like forsaken dogs for the return
of those who might not come.

Plazas have been emptied of the thousands
who once poured through them like sand;
just a few grains remain.

Cars that used to prance about mostly stand
in their stalls, hoping for the day they will
return to roaming.

The city’s hum and throb has ceased,
engines stilled as the hands that goaded them
suddenly slack from their endeavor.

Life is paused in midstep as an enemy invades,
we listen to dispatches from the front,
mourning all the fallen.

I rest in the stillness, where comfort is
proportional to trust: it is good to wait in silence
for the salvation of the Lord.