Hope Increased

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Van Gogh's Irises
Van Gogh’s Irises

I have a small grain of hope–
one small crystal that gleams
clear colors out of transparency.

I need more.

I break off a fragment
to send you.

Please take
this grain of a grain of hope
so that mine won’t shrink.

Please share your fragment
so that yours will grow.

Only so, by division,
will hope increase,

like a clump of irises, which will cease to flower
unless you distribute
the clustered roots, unlikely source–
clumsy and earth-covered–
of grace.
~Denise Levertov “For the New Year, 1981”

Years ago,  my newly widowed sister-in-law was trying to bring order to her late husband’s large yard and flower garden which had become overgrown following his sudden cardiac death in his mid-fifties.  In her ongoing ebb and flow with her grief, she brought to us several paper bags full of iris roots resting solemnly in clumps of dirt–dry misshapened feet and fingers crippled and homely — such unlikely sources of hope and healing.

We were late in the year getting them into the ground but they rewarded us with immense forgiveness. They took hold in the freedom of space in a new home and transformed our little courtyard into a Van Gogh landscape. Over the years they continue to gladden our hearts until we too must, to save them, divide them to pass on their gift of beauty to another garden.

This act– “by division, will hope increase”–feels radical yet that is exactly what God did:  sending Himself to become dusty, grime and earth-covered, so plain, so broken, so full of hope ready to bloom.

A part of God put down roots to grow, thrive and be divided, over and over and over again to increase the beauty and grace for those of us limited to this soil.

Just so:
our garden will bloom so all can see and know: hope grows here.

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I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
~Thomas Hardy “The Darkling Thrush” written on New Year’s Eve 1899

December Moon

 

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a full moon in Ireland

Before going to bed
After a fall of snow
I look out on the field
Shining there in the moonlight
So calm, untouched and white
Snow silence fills my head
After I leave the window.

Hours later near dawn
When I look down again
The whole landscape has changed
The perfect surface gone
Criss-crossed and written on
where the wild creatures ranged
while the moon rose and shone.

why did my dog not bark?
Why did I hear no sound
There on the snow-locked ground
In the tumultuous dark?

How much can come, how much can go
When the December moon is bright,
What worlds of play we’ll never know
Sleeping away the cold white night
After a fall of snow.
–  May Sarton, December Moon

 

Near midnight, a 4.8 earthquake centered off Vancouver Island occurred only 30 miles from us.
Friends a few miles away were jolted awake in their beds yet I was still up and felt nothing whatsoever.
Like nocturnal secrets that happen routinely outside our windows without our awareness,
we miss amazing things if we’re not paying attention.

We sleep our lives away
or we can stay tuned.

Why did the dogs bark in the night?
Could be a cat or raccoon walked by,
or an intruder,
or the moon was just so compelling
there was no other rational response.

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photo by Josh Scholten
photo by Josh Scholten

A Dying Dream

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Big Foot, a great Chief of the Sioux often said,
“I will stand in peace till my last day comes.”
He did many good and brave deeds for the white man and the red man.
Many innocent women and children who knew no wrong died here.
~Inscription on the Wounded Knee Monument

“the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered.
There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”
~Black Elk, (wounded trying to rescue his people after the Wounded Knee Massacre)  from Black Elk Speaks

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From today’s  Writers’ Almanac by Garrison Keillor:

“Today is the anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee, which took place in South Dakota in 1890. Twenty-three years earlier, the local tribes had signed a treaty with the United States government that guaranteed them the rights to the land around the Black Hills, which was sacred land. The treaty said that not only could no one move there, but they couldn’t even travel through without the consent of the Indians.

But in the 1870s, gold was discovered in the Black Hills, and the treaty was broken. People from the Sioux tribe were forced onto a reservation, with a promise of more food and supplies, which never came. Then in 1889, a native prophet named Wovoka, from the Paiute tribe in Nevada, had a vision of a ceremony that would renew the earth, return the buffalo, and cause the white men to leave and return the land that belonged to the Indians. This ceremony was called the Ghost Dance. People traveled across the plains to hear Wovoka speak, including emissaries from the Sioux tribe, and they brought back his teachings. The Ghost Dance, performed in special brightly colored shirts, spread through the villages on the Sioux reservation, and it scared the white Indian agents. They considered the ceremony a battle cry, dangerous and antagonistic. So one of them wired Washington to say that he was afraid and wanted to arrest the leaders, and he was given permission to arrest Chief Sitting Bull, who was killed in the attempt. The next on the wanted list was Sitting Bull’s half-brother, Chief Big Foot. Some members of Sitting Bull’s tribe made their way to Big Foot, and when he found out what had happened, he decided to lead them along with the rest of his people to Pine Ridge Reservation for protection. But it was winter, 40 degrees below zero, and he contracted pneumonia on the way.

Big Foot was sick, he was flying a white flag, and he was a peaceful man. He was one of the leaders who had actually renounced the Ghost Dance. But the Army didn’t make distinctions. They intercepted Big Foot’s band and ordered them into the camp on the banks of the Wounded Knee Creek. Big Foot went peacefully.

The next morning federal soldiers began confiscating their weapons, and a scuffle broke out between a soldier and an Indian. The federal soldiers opened fire, killing almost 300 men, women, and children, including Big Foot. Even though it wasn’t really a battle, the massacre at Wounded Knee is considered the end of the Indian Wars, a blanket term to refer to the fighting between the Native Americans and the federal government, which had lasted 350 years.

One of the people wounded but not killed during the massacre was the famous medicine man Black Elk, author of Black Elk Speaks (1932). Speaking about Wounded Knee, he said: ‘I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.'”
~Garrison Keillor from A Writers’ Almanac

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Like most twentieth century American children, I grew up with a sanitized understanding of American and Native history.  I had only a superficial knowledge of what happened at Wounded Knee, a low hill that rises above a creek bed on the South Dakota Pine Ridge Reservation, gleaned primarily from the 71 day symbolic standoff in 1973 between members of the Oglala Sioux and the American Indian Movement and the FBI, resulting in several shooting deaths.

Three years ago, when our son was teaching math at Little Wound High School on the Pine Ridge Reservation, we visited the site of this last major battle between the white man and Native people, which broke the spirit of the tribes’ striving to maintain their nomadic life as free people. This brutal massacre of over 150 Lakota men, women and children by the Seventh Regiment of the U.S. Army Cavalry took place in December 1890.

The dead lay where they fell for four days due to a severe blizzard. When the frozen corpses were finally gathered up by the Army, a deep mass grave was dug at the top of the hill, the bodies buried stacked one on top of another. The massive grave is now marked by a humble memorial monument surrounded by a chain link fence, adjacent to a small church, circled by more recent Lakota gravesites.

Four infants survived the four days of blizzard conditions wrapped in their dead mothers’ robes. One baby girl, only a few months old, was named “Lost Bird” after the massacre, bartered for and adopted by an Army Colonel as an interesting Indian “relic.” Rather than this adoption giving her a new chance, she died at age 29, having endured much illness, prejudice in white society, as well as estrangement from her native community and culture. Her story has been told in a book by Renee Sansom Flood, who helped to locate and move her remains back to Wounded Knee, where in death she is now back with her people.

There is unspeakable desolation and sadness on that lonely hill of graves. It is a regrettable part of our history that descendants of immigrants to American soil need to understand: by coming to the “New World” for opportunity, or refuge from oppression elsewhere, we made refugees of the people already here.

As Black Elk wrote, the dreams of a great people have been scattered and lack a center.

We must never allow hope to be buried at Wounded Knee nor must we ever forget what it means to no longer be safe in one’s own homeland.

 

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These Melancholy Days

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The melancholy days are come, the saddest of the year,
Of wailing winds, and naked woods, and meadows brown and sear.
Heaped in the hollows of the grove, the autumn leaves lie dead;
They rustle to the eddying gust, and to the rabbit’s tread.
The robin and the wren are flown, and from the shrubs the jay,
And from the wood-top calls the crow through all the gloomy day.

Where are the flowers, the fair young flowers, that lately sprang and stood
In brighter light, and softer airs, a beauteous sisterhood?
Alas! they all are in their graves, the gentle race, of flowers
Are lying in their lowly beds, with the fair and good of ours.
The rain is falling where they lie, but the cold November rain
Calls not from out the gloomy earth the lovely ones again.
~William Cullen Bryant from “The Death of the Flowers”

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These dark and sodden days are scarcely recalled while basking in the lightness of June when the sun shines 19 hours a day.  There is no way to cope with such overwhelming darkness except by adding in a few minutes more a day over six months, otherwise the shock of leaving behind the light would be too great.  The howling wind knocks and batters, the rain beats mercilessly at the window panes, the puddles stand deeper than they appear, the mud sucks off boots, the leaves thoroughly shaken from embarrassed branches.

We have no remnant of summer civility and frivolity left; we must adapt or cry trying, only adding to a pervasive sogginess.

Nevertheless, these melancholy days have their usefulness — there are times of joyful respite from frenetic activity while reading, snuggled deep under quilts, safe and warm.  Without such stark contrast, the light and bright time of year would become merely routine, yet just another sunny day.

That never happens here in the north.

We can now celebrate the emerging light with real thanksgiving and acknowledging this darkness makes gratitude more genuine.

We are privileged to live within a paradox:  there is, after all, a gladness in our sadness.

 

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A December Tenderness

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From the tawny light
from the rainy nights
from the imagination finding
itself and more than itself
alone and more than alone
at the bottom of the well where the moon lives,
can you pull me
into December? a lowland
of space, perception of space
towering of shadows of clouds blown upon
clouds over
                  new ground, new made
under heavy December footsteps? the only
way to live?
The flawed moon
acts on the truth, and makes
an autumn of tentative
silences.
You lived, but somewhere else,
your presence touched others, ring upon ring,
and changed. Did you think
I would not change?
                              The black moon
turns away, its work done. A tenderness,
unspoken autumn.
We are faithful
only to the imagination. What the
imagination
             seizes
as beauty must be truth. What holds you
to what you see of me is
that grasp alone.
~Denise Levertov “Everything that acts is actual”
Within these days of early winter
is disappearance of the familiar world,
of all that grows and thrives,
of color and freshness,
of hope in survival.
Then there comes a moment of softness amid the bleak,
a gift of grace and beauty,
a glance of sunlight on a snowy hillside,
a covering of low cloud puffs in the valley,
a moon lit landscape,
and I know the known world is still within my grasp
because you have hold of me.
~EPG
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Bones of the Landscape

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I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.
~Andrew Wyeth, artist

How endlessly beautiful is woodland in winter!  Today there is a thin mist; just enough to make a background of tender blue mystery three hundred yards away, and to show any defect in the grouping of the near trees.
~ Gertrude Jekyll, British horticulturalist

There is a stumbling reluctance transitioning from a month of advent expectancy to three months of winter dormancy.  Inevitably there is let-down: the watching and waiting is not over after all.  There is profound loneliness knowing the story continues, hidden from view.

We have been stripped naked as the bare trees right now; our bones, like the trees of the landscape, raising up broken branches and healed fractures of previous winter windstorms.  We no longer have anything to hide behind or among,  our defects are plain to see,  our whole story a mystery as yet untold but impossible to conceal.

Here I am, abundantly flawed with pocks and scars, yet renewed once again.  There are hints of new growth to come when the frost abates and the sap thaws.   I am  prepared to wait an eternity if necessary, for the rest of the story.

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Christmas Mess

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When the barn doors are opened
on a bright frosted Christmas morning,
the inner darkness penetrated by a beam of sunlight,
exposing an equine escapee.

His stall door stands ajar,  the door unlatched,
he meanders the black of the unlit barn aisle lined with hay bales
munching his breakfast, lunch, and dinner
all of which lies strewn and ruined at his feet.

Not only did he somehow escape his locked door
but he has chosen to leave poop piles
on every other horses’ breakfast, lunch,  and dinner
as futilely they watch from behind their stall doors.

He has had the run of the place all night~
obvious from his ubiquitous hoof tracks amid
the overturned buckets, trampled halters, tangled baling twine,
twisted hoses, toppled hay bales and general chaos.

At least he didn’t climb up and start the tractor
or eat the cat food or pry open the grain barrel
or chew a saddle or two, or rip horse blankets apart,
but from the looks of things I think he tried.

His head goes up as the sunlight highlights his nocturnal escapade,
catching him red-hoofed and boldly nonchalant, proclaiming innocence.
Like a child asking for milk to go with a stolen cookie
he approaches me, begging for a carrot after his all night repast.

I grab a fist full of mane, put him back, double lock him in.
Surveying the mess, I want to turn around, shut the barn doors
and banish it back to the cover of darkness,
hide his sins now illuminated in the light of day.

Instead
I remember all the messes I’ve made in my life.
I clean his up, give him a hug,
and forgive as I’m forgiven.
~EPG

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