Their Exuberant Souls

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Whatever he needs, he has or doesn’t
have by now. 
Whatever the world is going to do to him
it has started to do… 

…Whatever is 
stored in his heart, he can use, now. 
Whatever he has laid up in his mind
he can call on.  What he does not have
he can lack…

…Whatever his exuberant soul
can do for him, it is doing right now…

…Everything that’s been placed in him will come out, now, the contents of a trunk
unpacked and lined up on a bunk in the underpine light.
~Sharon Olds from “The Summer-Camp Bus Pulls Away from the Curb”

 

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This is the season for graduations, when children move into the adult world and don’t look back.

As a parent, as an educator, as a mentor within church and community, and after nearly thirty years as a college health physician witnessing this transition many times over, I can’t help but be wistful about what I may have left undone and unsaid with the generation about to launch.

In their moments of vulnerability, did I pack enough love into those exuberant hearts so he or she can pull it out when it is most needed?

When our three children traveled the world after their graduations, moving way beyond the fenced perimeter of our little farm, I trust they left well prepared.

As a school board member, I watched students, parents and teachers work diligently together in their preparation for that graduation day, knowing the encompassing love behind each congratulatory hand shake.

When another batch of our church family children say goodbye, I remember holding them in the nursery, listening to their joyful voices as I played piano accompaniment in Sunday School, feeding them in innumerable potlucks over the years.  I pray we have fed them well in every way with enough spiritual food to stick to their ribs in the “thin” and hungry times.

When hundreds of my student/patients move on each year beyond our university and college health clinic, I pray for their continued emotional growth buoyed by plenty of resilience when the road inevitably gets bumpy.

I believe I know what is stored in the hearts of graduates because I, among many others, helped them pack it full of love.   Only they will know the time to unpack what is within when their need arises.

 

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The Velvet of Sleep

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The children have gone to bed.
We are so tired we could fold ourselves neatly
behind our eyes and sleep mid-word, sleep standing
warm among the creatures in the barn, lean together
and sleep, forgetting each other completely in the velvet,
the forgiveness of that sleep.

Then the one small cry:
one strike of the match-head of sound:
one child’s voice:
and the hundred names of love are lit
as we rise and walk down the hall.

One hundred nights we wake like this,
wake out of our nowhere
to kneel by small beds in darkness.
One hundred flowers open in our hands,
a name for love written in each one.
~Annie Lighthart “The Hundred Names of Love”

 

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Each of many nights of a child wakening,
each of many moments of rocking them in the dark,
lulling them back to that soft velvet of sleep,
I feel my budding love
unfurling in fragrance
of blossomed fullness,
unfurling until there is no inner spiral left,
and each petal, one by one, drops away,
grateful.

 

 

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Going Home to Mother

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“Comrade General, instead of a decoration, could I go home to see my mother?”

I was sixteen, taking second year high school Russian during the Cold War, partly for the challenge, but mostly to understand better who our “enemy” was.  Our teacher assigned us unusual homework one weekend: watch the 1959 Russian movie  Ballad of a Soldier being broadcast on PBS in 1970.  It had English subtitles, but the point of the assignment was to experience the sounds and inflections of native Russian speakers.  Although the movie was a fictional story of a Russian soldier’s brief leave from the front during WWII, it complemented a concurrent assignment in our World History class, reading All Quiet on the Western Front. The unforgettable juxtaposition of these two works of art helped me appreciate, in the midst of the nightly news from Vietnam,  the terrible cost of war.

Recently, some forty seven years later, I watched this movie again. The tale is a classic “returning home from war” saga with the twist that young Alyosha is only on a brief leave granted by a compassionate general rewarding the front line soldier for an extraordinary act of bravery.  Alyosha asks only to return to his home village to fix the leaking roof of his mother’s home.  Given the extraordinary difficulties of war time travel in an economically struggling country, as well as the challenges and people he ends up meeting along the way, his time home ends up being only a few precious minutes before he has to turn around and return to the front.  He only has enough time to hug his mother, and say goodbye one last time, never to return again.

Although the story focuses on a son’s determination to get home to his mother, it also allows a view of war’s permanent damage to bodies and minds,  as well as the toll of war time separation on relationships.  There seems little sense of hopeful future for the characters in this story, so the immediacy of what they experience takes on greater significance.

Alyosha meets a young woman on the train and their evolving connection offers a glimpse of a potential love that can transcend the ugliness of war.  They part not even knowing how to find each other again, after having spent precious few hours in conversation.   Acknowledging that lack of future hope is the most painful of all;  there is no ability to make plans with confidence, no sense of a long life stretching ahead like the dusty road leading from his village that reaches endless to the horizon.

I remember sitting in my childhood home, watching this movie as a teenager with so little life experience at that point.  Tears streamed down my face, touched forever by the tender story of a man made too old by war and hardship for his young years and his simple desire to once again hug his mother.   This Russian soldier did not feel like an enemy to me.  This felt like someone I could easily love and hold on to–as a brother, someday as a cherished husband, eventually as a precious son.   Years later I would identify with the role of the mother with moistening eyes, watching my children leave our home, heading down that long endless road to their own uncertain futures.

On this day — May 26 — what would have been my mother’s 98th birthday — I have the simple desire to once again hug my mother and feel her tender love.  The wrenching moments of saying goodbye as I left home remain my precious bittersweet memories of her, even as my own road now grows shorter.

There will come a time, in our forever home,  when there will be no more goodbyes,  I’ll never have to let go of her and neither of us will walk away to an uncertain future.

 

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The Solace of Ordinary

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Do not ask your children
to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is a way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples, and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.
~William Martin from The Parent’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents

 

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Flowers seem intended for the solace of ordinary humanity.
~John Ruskin

 

 

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We know the solace in the ordinary as life throws flowers at our feet.

Ordinary is each breath, each heart beat, each tear, each smile, one after another and another.

We are offered the gift of each ordinary moment;  only grace makes it extraordinary.

 

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A Simple Welcome

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He saw clearly how plain and simple – how narrow, even – it all was;
but clearly, too, how much it all meant to him,
and the special value of some such anchorage in one’s existence.
He did not at all want to abandon the new life and its splendid space
s, 
to turn his back on sun and air and all they offered him 
and creep home and stay there; 
the upper world was all too strong, 
it called to him still, even down there, 
and he knew he must return to the larger stage. 
But it was good to think he had this to come back to, 
this place which was all his own, 
these things which were so glad to see him again 
and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.
~Kenneth Grahame, from Wind in the Willows (about the Mole and his home at Mole End)

 

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If your everyday life seems poor to you, do not accuse it; accuse yourself, tell yourself you are not poet enough to summon up its riches; since for the creator there is no poverty and no poor or unimportant place.
― Rainer Maria Rilke

 

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As a child, I would sometimes spend long rainy afternoons languishing on the couch at home, complaining to my mother how boring my life was.  Her typical response was to remind me my boredom said more about me than about life – I became the accused, rather than the accuser,  failing to summon up life’s riches.  Thus convicted, my sentence followed:  she would promptly give me chores to do.   I learned not to voice my complaints about life because it always meant work.

Some things haven’t changed, even fifty five years later.  Whenever I am tempted to feel pitiful or bored, accusing my life of being poor or unfair, I need to remember what that says about me.  There is a whole world out there to explore, plenty of work needing doing and always a welcome home when I return.

If I’m not poet enough to celebrate the gilded edge of the plain and simple, if I’m not poet enough to articulate beauty even in the sharp thorns of life, if I’m not poet enough to recognize the Creator’s brilliance in every molecule, then it is my poverty I’m accusing, not his.

Back to work then.  There is a life to be lived, a world to experience and words to be written.

And it is good to think we have all this to come back to, this place which is all our own.

 

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photo by Nate Gibson

 

 

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The Gleaming House

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Every now and then, I forget to turn off the lights in the barn. I usually notice just before I go to bed, when the farm’s boundaries seem to have drawn in close. That light makes the barn seem farther away than it is — a distance I’m going to have to travel before I sleep. The weather makes no difference. Neither does the time of year.

Usually, after turning out that forgotten barn light, I sit on the edge of the tractor bucket for a few minutes and let my eyes adjust to the night outside. City people always notice the darkness here, but it’s never very dark if you wait till your eyes owl out a little….I’m always glad to have to walk down to the barn in the night, and I always forget that it makes me glad. I heave on my coat, stomp into my barn boots and trudge down toward the barn light, muttering at myself. But then I sit in the dark, and I remember this gladness, and I walk back up to the gleaming house, listening for the horses.
~Verlyn Klinkenborg  from A Light in the Barn

 

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My favorite thing about walking up from the barn at night is looking at the lights glowing in our house, knowing there is life happening there, even though each child has flown away to distant cities. There is love happening there as Dan and I adjust to an “alone” life together. There are still future years there – as many as God grants us to stay on the farm.

It is home and it is light and if all it takes is a walk from a darkened barn to remind me, I’ll leave the lights on in the barn at night more often.

 

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The Sweetness of Ripening

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Our hair
turns white with our ripening
as though to fly away in some
coming wind, bearing the seed
of what we know…
Having come
the bitter way to better prayer, we have
the sweetness of ripening.
~Wendell Berry in “Ripening”

 

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My husband and I walk our country road together on a warm late summer evening, breathing in the smell of ripening cornstalks and freshly mowed grass lined up in windrows,  much like the walks we took together thirty six years ago when we were newly married.   Just down the road, we pass the smaller farm we first owned having left the city behind for a new life amid quieter surroundings.   The seedling trees we planted there are now a thick grove and effective windbreak from the bitter howling northeasters we endured.  The fences need work after 30 years, the blackberries have swallowed up the small barn where our first horses, goats, chickens and cows lived, the house needs painting, nevertheless there is such sweetness recalling the first home we owned together.

On this road, our children were conceived and raised, strolling these same steps with us many times, but now they are flown far away for their life’s work. My husband and I are back to walking together again, just the two of us, wondering how each child is doing at this very moment, pondering how the passage of time could be so swift that our hair is turning white and we are going to seed when only yesterday we were so young.

We ripen before we’re ready.

It is bitter sweetness relinquishing what we know,  to face what we can never know.

It is the mystery that keeps us coming back, walking the same steps those younger legs once did, admiring the same setting sun, smelling the same late summer smells.  But we are not the same as we were, having finally come to the fruitfulness intended all along.

Ripening and readying.

 

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