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   

Wild horses could drag me away

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Female_horse-champ_Kitty_Canutt_(1919)_by_unknownThe spoken language is a herd/heard of wild mustangs, thundering through the mouths of millions of speakers who ride the nearest horse at hand. And because they’re wild, you see and hear fights breaking out between verbs and subjects who are never going to agree this side of Wichita, Texas, so you may as well get used to it. Wild horses don’t care if the verb and subject agree; in fact, it doesn’t take much to pit one against another as they rush through the air straight into your ear. Listen now and you’ll hear them stampeding by, saying, “My brother and his family from Illinois lives just down the street.” And if pronouns concern you, you may as well start wearing earplugs or walk around with your fingers in your ears because I guarantee some horse-whipping fool is going to tell you a secret and warn you not to tell anybody because it is “between you and I.”

 

The written language, on the other hand, is a corral of horses, tame or almost so, taught to let the writer/rider hogtie other people’s minds and hearts, just so the horse whisperer can win the rodeo, even if there’s only a few people in attendance. Once you fall in love with horses, you can’t do anything else. After you make a few of them eat out of your hand, they own you, and you spend the rest of your life lying in wait in cold canyons biding your time until some of those wild mustangs stop to eat; then you lasso as many as you can and take them home.

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It’s a cold and lonely business, and it’s not always pretty. Their hooves are sharp and they can leave you bloodied, dirty, and discouraged. Not a few can jump any fence you can build. But sometimes, just sometimes, you pick yourself up from the ground for the one-hundredth time, ready to quit and swear off horses, but you don’t. You dust yourself off, climb back on, and the horse lets you stay. When that happens, nothing else matters. It’s just you and the horse, and you feel like you can ride forever.

 

 

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.

 

 

It happened in August

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It happened in August. I knew better than to wade into the water, but I’m compulsive that way.

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The water seemed calm enough, barely a ripple on its surface. Maybe it was the shattered sunlight, winking and blinking like a thousand sequins, that drew me farther in. My feet followed the slope of the earth until I stood in chest-high water.

 

That’s when I saw the wave out on the horizon. I always think it is a small wave brought by some unseen current, a wave that will wash over me gently, but not pull me under.

 

So, I stood there and waited.

 

I should have known, and if I’m honest, I did know, but I have a chronic case of optimism that affects my vision. I’m so nearsighted that I cannot recognize reality until it’s right in front of me.

 

When it was too late to turn back, I saw what lay beneath that wave: the great whale. And it swallowed me, as it has done year after year.

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For four and a half months I traversed the ocean in the belly of that whale, my old companion. Then last week, he spit me out, worn and wasted, my eyes unused to the light. For two days I lay on the beach, asking myself if I would return to the beach or move inland.

 

Next time it will be different, I tell myself. Teaching will not swallow me whole; I will teach and have a life. Sitting by the fire here on the shore, watching the small waves roll in, I believe that.

 

Next time it will be different. In January I will return to the shore, believing, always believing.

 

I am called to the sea. I cannot stay away.

 

 

 Photos: Seashore   Whale

 

 

In praise of my bed

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No other lover has been so faithful as you, who wait for me at day’s end, unmoved by my failures and lack of grace, ready to bear me up without complaint and hold me in your embrace through every dark hour.

Magician of the night, I give you weariness and you transform it into rest. I drink the great elixir you prepare for me and awake refreshed in body and soul.

You are the skiff I row to carry me from past to future across the Sea of Dreams, where I have drowned a thousand times.

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Atop your still rink, I glide and spin through the dark hours. When the ice melts, I fall beneath the depths, swim the length of night, and crawl to shore.

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You are the dance floor of my memories.

Each night I meet monsters, lovers, and my other selves, reincarnated from remembrances past. We play upon your darkened stage – dramas, comedies, and mysteries – to our forgetful audience.

You are the envelope I fold myself in to mail myself to tomorrow.

I plant the seed of me in your rich soil, grow new again, reborn each day older than the day before.

You are the cocoon I wrap myself in to shed my younger selves, all the people I used to be.

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I am sovereign of your continent, where I rule over a legion of dreams.

You are the sheet of paper on which I write stories of love and loss, tales too sad to tell or remember.

Unafraid I climb onto the ledge of night and jump. Then I wind myself in the shroud of yesterday’s me and die once more, until I can die no more.

Photos: skiff by phil smith    skater   cocoon

The care and feeding of an elephant

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At the circus, when you first see an elephant, you want one. Once you take a ride around the tent on its back, you tell yourself that one day you will buy one. You can see everything from up there.

 

 

When you grow up, everyone seems to have one. The circus does that to you. Elephants never forget and neither do the people who go there. But you, you don’t buy an elephant. You admire and enjoy other people’s elephants. But what would you do with one if you had it? Elephants can’t travel with you around the world. You would have to buy the entire circus, and you can’t do that.

 

 

Then one day, you stop traveling and you buy an elephant. You are thrilled and dismayed at the same time. Elephants require a lot of care. Depending on their size, they can eat up to 300 pounds of food each day. You have to provide water for drinking, at least 20 or more gallons per day, and extra water for daily cleaning. Their feet cannot be neglected, and unless you have training, you have to hire a vet to check them for you. Finally, you must consider waste. With elephants, dung happens. Regularly. When you least expect it. And at the most inconvenient times.

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I’m not complaining. I like my elephant. I’m doing my best to take care of it and learn all its quirks. At the end of the day, when I come back from work, it’s there waiting for me. I climb on its strong back and enjoy the view, trusting it to carry me into the future.

 

 

Because that’s what a homeowner does, right?

 

 

Front photo courtesy of fir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.au   
Back photo courtesy of SuperJew

Our Sunday drive

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Sunday afternoon we drove up north to see some fall colors. The wizards of weather foresaw rain and gloom, but the wind tidied up the sky and swept the clouds into the corners so the sun could shine across the bright blue dome.

 

 

Crowds of slim birch trees dressed in their finest yellow drew close to the road and shyly waved as we drove by. Rosy-cheeked sumac crowded round their feet and drew even closer to watch the cars go by. The oaks, of course, wore their best: dappled patterns of green, yellow, orange, and red; swaths of color made iridescent by the light. Standing among the glory of the colors, the firs and pine trees kept to themselves, attending to their business of staying ever green.

 

 

Near the village of Wittenberg, we saw one deer, a young doe, crossing the road. We slowed the car, and she turned to look at us. When we drew closer, she turned and ran, her white tail waving goodbye.

 

 

Near Tigerton and again near New London, we crossed the Embarrass River with its intriguing name. It’s easy to imagine the naming as a kind of penance for some act of shame or humiliation by Wisconsin’s early settlers, but it’s merely French for obstruction. Before any other Europeans arrived here, the French canoed their way through the state rivers looking for a route to China. They were as successful as we were as children, digging holes, thinking we could tunnel through the earth and crawl out in Shanghai. Trees lining this tributary of the Wolf River fell into the water, clogging the passage of the French, so they named it for its obstruction.

 

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Our drive led us past red-barned fields, each marked by one or more silo like silent sentinels guarding the farms. Acres of corn crowded the land, each stalk wearing a feathered cap in anticipation of the harvest.

 

 

We spoke little on our drive; our hearts were too full. Fall crushes us with its beauty and heals us in turn. Beauty is the heart-balm that creates a longing for home and then invites us in, and each time the earth turns, splashing my eyes with its color, I cannot get enough of it.

 

 

Yesterday a wind blew

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Yesterday a wind blew – a wind without urgency, a wind that held me in its arms, a wind of promise. I recognized that wind from the dreams I have had since childhood. So many nights I have heard its call to fly and have soared across the skies of dreamland.

 

 

The wind yesterday waited outside my door. And as I walked, it called me to the sky. I raised my arms, just as I do in my dreams, almost believing that the wind would lift me up and carry me. And when my feet held firm, stayed in the world’s grip, I pretended to stretch. I have been taught to keep my dreams to myself, yet I raised my arms more than once, as much a gesture of love to the world and sky as a hope that I could fly.

 

 

A gauze of clouds rimmed the sky, diffusing the sun’s light. I walked further than I normally do, immersed in that cool, soft wind that gave and took my breath away.

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Later in the morning I saw the geese flying, carried by the same promise, arrowing across the sky to places I cannot go. I trembled at their loveliness and listened to their calls, a language strange and yet familiar. I watched them, and my heart stirred with a longing for a place I cannot name but want to call home.

 

 

What wonder is this that I could see the sky so blue, filled with geese, their cries filling the moment like a cup, brimful with joy, prepared just for me.

 

 

 

 

Photo on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/people/37804979@N00

De-lighted for 44 hours

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I woke up in complete darkness just after Tuesday ended and Wednesday began. Outside the wind was banging around the house, tossing garbage, tearing limbs off the trees, and howling like a hungry wolf. It raced through our city at 90 mph with six small tornadoes tucked in its pocket, which it set down here and there like spinning tops with winds up to 120 mph that tore roofs off, split trees clean in half, and then snapped a dozen telephone poles, tangling their power lines and extinguishing the lights for over 50,000 people. We were in that de-lighted number.

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We sleep in modified darkness, a lonely universe with pinpoints of light here and there dimly shining. I have a digital clock by my bed that counts the minutes in blue-green numbers and we have motion-operated lights in the bathroom, hall, and kitchen that protect our toes from stubs and our shins from furniture. All night the lights shine – digital clocks in the living room and on the microwave, and on/off indicators on the TV, modem, Time Capsule, printer, computers, and toothbrush.

 

It has been a long time since I’ve experienced darkness. No lights inside; no lights outside. Only a glow in the night sky to the southwest where electricity still flowed.

 

Our grandchild slept in the spare bedroom when the storm hit but never woke up. We ate cold cereal for breakfast, opening the refrigerator to get the milk and closing it quickly to keep the food cold. I scrounged through the cupboards and found some coffee tea bags. Then my husband heated up water on the grill so I could have my coffee. On the way to the grandchild’s summer program, I saw some of the wind’s work and heard that it would probably be days before we would be back on the grid. We felt blessed to have water, including hot water from the gas water heater.

 

Wednesday I read more than usual. We could get on the Internet by setting up a hotspot on one of the iPhones, but the connection was slow. My husband drove outside of our area to find ice since all the nearby grocery stores were closed. We ate what we could from the refrigerator and put the rest of the food on ice. He bought a small propane burner and we cooked on that and made tea. I read myself to sleep with a flashlight.

 

Thursday I had classes. Our school had the power back on by then, and none of the international students in my class had lost power in their apartments. All were alarmed at the idea of living in an area with tornadoes, so we spent the first hour talking about tornadoes and what to do if one touched down. That conversation led to ice storms, blizzards, wind chill, and frostbite, which are all as much a part of living in northeast Wisconsin as bratwurst, cheese curds, fish fries, and bubblers.

 

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Bubbler

 

Thursday evening after I got into bed with my book and propped my flashlight up, the lights flickered on and off. When the electricity began to flow again, some neighbor children ran outside whooping and hollering. I had to get out of bed and turn lights off.

 

I am thankful for the men and women who spent hours working on downed wires, broken telephone poles, and local generators. I had forgotten or never realized how much noise the lights cause. We live in a restless world of illuminated nights that leave little space for silence. Although we experienced some inconveniences during our short time without power, I slept well, wrapped in the quiet dark beneath the starlit night.

 

 

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.