Carried by hands

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Hand Reaching

She comes out to greet me in the waiting room. I haven’t been waiting long. It is at day’s end and my work is finished. During the wait, I scratch in my final words to tell her what I need. I will not need to speak anymore.

She leads me into the room. In the dim light I notice only the table and chair. “I’ll be back in a few minutes,” she says. I leave all of my clothes on the chair and wall hook; then I crawl under the covers and wait for the knock.

I lie on my stomach, my face cradled in the open circle at the top of the table. She turns on music, soft flutes and ocean waves.

I yield to her hands, oiled and searching. She finds my pain. Some aches I knew I carried; others lie hidden, deep within me. She seeks them out – knots of worry, muscles clenched, holding their breath. She forces them to breathe.

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The pain cannot leave me until I feel it. Worry, long-forgotten deadlines, and anger hide within, cling to my bones. Her hands draw them out.

She murmurs and I turn, eyes closed, heart and mind still. Inside this room, I am outside my life, an in-between place.

I arrived once just as I am now, unclothed, at the mercy of hands. My leaving will be like this. An angel will prepare me for the crossing over. Her hands will find my hurt and pain and carry it away. I have swallowed darkness and sorrow; it clings to my bones. But it will yield to those hands.

We shall not speak; my words, as they are now, will be left there in the waiting room.

Then she will push my barge into the waters and the music will carry me across. And there will be hands, familiar hands, waiting on that other side.

Grand Teton National Park

Back massage photo courtesy of Nick Webb   

Death in two parts

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I. Death is an empty place

 

The heart dies first, emptying slowly until its fragile shell sits silently in your chest. The lungs resist, hungry as wolves in winter, biting after the air, until they starve, buried in the noiseless snow.

 

The ragged-edged knife of sorrow scrapes the bones clean. Despair burns the bones to ash, washed away by what tears are left. The rest follows until you are hollowed out, your body weightless, floating through the world, tethered against your will.

 

The dreams are the last to go.

 

Only the echo of your voice remains. Your family, friends, and acquaintances fail to mourn you. They cannot tell the living from the dead.

 

But you know.

 

Death is an empty place.

 

 

 

II. Rising from the dead is harder than it looks

 

In death you grow fond of silence. You rest in the stillness, free from pain or want.

 

If you could only close your eyes forever, you could remain in that emptiness. But the world lies in wait. A leaf splattered with red and green falls and when you stoop to touch it, the sun’s fire scorches your hand. Longing with its pain enters you, furtively like a thief. The moon waits for you behind a hedge of cloud, reaches out and holds you like an old lover. Its soft light cleaves the darkness. In the distance, you see hope and turn away. Too late. One by one memories trudge back, dragging promises to fill the empty room.

 

The lungs resist breathing again. You dread that old hunger, the desire for air that can never be satisfied. Every breath seeks another and another.

 

Life abhors a vacuum; it forces its way back in. The daily meals, the work, the cleaning, the bills, the neighbors, the care of children, they all crowd into you, jostling for space, clumsy and needy. They crush that empty shell of a heart. You spend the rest of your life trying to put it back together again, looking for the pieces. It will never be the same. When your misshapen, patched-up heart finally beats again, you cry, because you know the heart is always the first to go.

 

 

Happy One More Lap Around the Sun Day!

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If you’re feeling dizzy, I don’t blame you. I feel dizzy too. We just finished another lap around the sun, moving 108,000 kilometers an hour. It doesn’t sound quite so fast in miles – just a little over 67,000 miles per hour. (When it comes to numbers, it doesn’t matter that the distances are equivalent, the bigger number makes me feel that we are going faster in kilometers than in miles; in the same way that 100 pennies looks like more money than 4 quarters to small children and people like me.)

 

Add in the fact that the earth is also rotating at up to 1000 miles per hour each day,and I start to feel a tiny bit panicky. Too much thinking about it makes me want to stay inside lest I accidentally get spun off the earth before my time. Yes, it’s a far-flung idea, but just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it won’t.

 

The last million or so kilometers of the 940 million kilometer course (or 584 million miles plus a few yards) I traveled this year were exhausting. I’ve been doing these laps for decades, so you think I would be used to it. All the scientific types assure me that this year’s turn was no faster than any other year, but I think it was.

 

However, reaching the finish line on December 31 and pushing through the midnight tape stretched between the two years is always cause for celebration. So, I want to wish you a Happy New Year! May the next 940 million kilometers be good ones for you and yours!

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Bewilderment and laughter

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An administrative map of Burma with the Karen region in yellow.

An administrative map of Burma with the Karen region in yellow.

 

They are a small people, the Karen.  Most are short and wiry, used to carrying heavy loads. They laugh often.

 

 

Once, they cultivated the earth. People of the soil, they planted the land with seeds and cuttings to feed their villages. They knew the depth the seed desired, the care the small plants needed, and the time for harvest. They knew the rain by smell, marked the patterns of flight of greedy birds who circled over their fields, and recognized every insect, tree, and animal that shared the land with them.

 

 

They have been transplanted, forced to flee their land, Burma, to live here in northeastern Wisconsin. Soldiers have cultivated their homeland with death, planting landmines in fields and on paths. The earth, once life-giver, has become life and limb taker. Eastern Burma, the Karen homeland, now vies with Afghanistan as the most landmine-ridden area of the world.

 

 

Three months ago, Ba, Mer, Hsa, Paw, Aung and a dozen others doubled their latitude and landed on the other side of the world. Ba, Mer, and Hsa have never studied before. I bewilder them by drawing lines on the whiteboard, pointing to them, and making strange sounds. They understand the pictures in the textbook, but the sounds are hard to make.

 

 

In time they match sound to word, greet me with “Good morning, teacher” and “Good-bye, teacher.” Most of the other students now understand the grammar that we study, do well on the tests, and easily join in the pair work to practice speaking. When I explain the task to Ba, Mer, and Hsa, they laugh and say, “I don’t know.” I want to tell them “I don’t know, either.”

 

 

I don’t know the secrets of the soil or how to coax enough food from seeds to feed my family. I must trust others to tell me how to read the sky or translate the language of birds. I cannot harvest rice or carry grain across mountain paths. I know words and live most of my life inside. I live on the earth, not with the earth. What I know is a small tree in a vast forest of what I do not know.

 

 

Once, some years past, I had to flee a place I’d grown accustomed to, a place I loved. I left abruptly, never to return, and the ache remains. My own leaving is a small thing, compared to that of my students, thrust out of their homes by war, rape, landmines, forced labor, and destruction of their villages. But I feel a kinship. Somehow we have each been planted here, meeting in rooms to struggle with words, each of us knowing and not-knowing so much. We greet one another and begin the day, scribbling on boards and in books, smiling, speaking, wondering, and sharing our bewilderment. But always with laughter, the one true language we share.

 

Map courtesy of Aotearoa 

 

The land of giants

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When I was small I lived in the land of giants. People and building loomed large, towering over me in a world that pulsed with power and strength. In my first eight years when the year changed, I sat on my grandparents’ porch, coated and mittened, to watch the New Year’s parade march down the broad street. The porch stretched half a block in length surrounded by concrete walls I first had to tiptoe over to see the marchers.

 

When my years grew large, my grandparents’ home grew small, their porch unable to hold more than a few chairs, a table, a bench, and two or three small children.

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I knew a man once who slept in my mother’s bed, a man not my father but who owned her when he changed her name. He walked in fierceness, his words the mace he swung to shame and mock and ridicule. He slew me more than once. Though I had more than a decade to stand on, he towered over me, an insurmountable wall that kept me in a place of fear. I hated him.

 

A full generation passed before I saw him again. This past week we met. The years have left him frail, thin, and sick. His legs hesitate when he tries to walk, and his ears fail to listen to the soft voices around him. Old angers still smolder in his words, but the flame no longer leaps out to scorch and singe.

 

All of us come to rubble eventually. The mortar weakens and our walls collapse. We lay down our weapons and surrender to the years.

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We talked, the two of us, and told our stories. I searched for my old hatred and found it gone, lost on some path I took decades and decades ago.

 

I left that man, surprised at my great peace and my great guilt. I am not innocent. I have wrecked havoc, too, shook the ground with anger, pierced hearts with sharp-edged words, and held others hostage behind walls I built myself.

 

I have grown small again and hope to stay that way until I leave. I have had my share of hurts, but I have also hurt others and must make amends, for none of us escape this world unscathed or guiltless.

Eating summer

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We eat the strands of sunlight that the plants spend their days gathering. We eat the roar of volcanoes, old memories of fires and dinosaur bones, forgotten car trips, purr of cats, chatter of blue jays, breath of smokestacks, and all of our words, even our silence.

 

We eat earth’s metals – magnesium, zinc and copper – that the plants mine. They find the wells of sweet waters far beneath the soil and draw it up for us.

 

One day in July the garden calls us to eat spring and summer, sweet, salty, tart, and juicy. After we slice the sunlight into a blue bowl, we pour the sun’s golden liquid that we gathered from the tight fists of olives, and eat until our bellies fairly shine. Then we lick the bowl like it was the sky itself.

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Vegetables

Winter’s night

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The shadows have been there all day, waiting for the light to slant. The world turns its back on the sun as the shadows tilt onto the ceiling above the kitchen lights.

 

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Twilight awakens my longing, lets it loose like a hungry hound, searching for a bone I buried somewhere long ago. I miss the ones who have left. I hunt for them along the trail of memories,  following a familiar path that leads to the river. Here as always, I lose their scent.

 

Evening washes the room gray. My eyes cannot adjust; details fade like memories. Darkness brings its own weariness. I wear it like a cloak or shroud. I am too tired to go further. I long to hibernate, to crawl inside the barren night, and sleep and sleep and sleep.

 

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I listen to the lullaby of dark; I am weary, friend.

Don’t stop.

But I must sleep away this night that seems to never end. My tears will drown me if I do not stop.

Don’t close your eyes.

Why? Just a bit of rest and I will start again.

There is no starting after that sleep.

How far until the light?

The weight of snow

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Snow laden pine

 

 

Today the snow fell.

 

 

The pine trees stood in the silence to catch the falling sky. Two crows watched, unaware or unconcerned. The pines had nowhere else to go. When their limbs grew tired, they laid their burdens down. Snow scattered on the ground, startling the crows.

 

 

The birch trees are bones picked clean by the wind. Summer’s silver leaves lost long ago.

 

 

I have never loved the trees more than now.

 

 

The snow knows something of letting go, words unspoken, worlds lost, vanishing hour by hour. I think a bush grew there; I can’t remember. My familiar path is gone. I am left with only memories.

 

 

The snow knows too much of death to make a sound. It writes without words — shows, but never tells. See, you will not drown in this white flood. Winter stills the water and commands it to sit at her feet. In spring, the water will move again, seeking the earth’s heart, flowing down, down into the River Lethe, drowning all your memories of this world.

 

 

The blue shades grow large. I watch them lumber across the yard into the night.

 

 

I promise myself I will not forget this day.

 

Writing myself down

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I sit before the screen as words unfurl; skeins of thought untangle one by one. In silence I knit, undo, and knit again.

 

Above ground, the words grow, limb by limb, empty branches longing for spring. In the hidden place, the roots of wordless thought spread beneath the story that is me.

 

 

 

The truth is, words gnaw at my heart, so I release them. One thought leads to another; I follow, climb skyward, never looking down. I cling to fragile branches that cannot bear my weight. The trees I write, stripped of summer, grow from the tips of from my blue-stemmed hands. Blood flows from heart to paper, as it must.

 

 

The pattern is everywhere. Beauty divides and subdivides into frost, deltas, translucent wings, agates, cells, copper crystals, numbers, and the red river within. Trees of fire touch earth in storms; neurons branch into life. I am part of the pattern. Sentences flow onto paper; the waters merge, drowning me again and again.

 

 

I write the bridge I walk on. Behind me, the past swallows my path. I long to write myself home, a place I’ve never been. Will these words carry me there?

 

 

Had I been free to write these many years, I would have had the time to write myself mad. All those doors shut, the daily tasks that blocked my way, disappointments stealing so much time, every one another mercy.

 

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CREDITS

Copper crystals:  By Paul from Enschede, The Netherlands (Dendritic Copper Crystals) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Sand patterns:  David Lally [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Colorado dry river delta:  U.S. Geological Survey 
Department of the Interior/USGS
U.S. Geological Survey/photo by Pete McBride

Veins: http://www.radpod.org/2006/11/08/cerebral-arteriovenous-malformation/

Dr. Marina-Portia Anthony

Frost: Joe Lencioni, shiftingpixel.com

Wing venationhttp://bugs.bio.usyd.edu.au/

Neuron: http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pbio.0040029