When August Burns Low

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Further in Summer than the Birds
Pathetic from the Grass
A minor Nation celebrates
Its unobtrusive Mass.

No Ordinance be seen
So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

Remit as yet no Grace
No Furrow on the Glow
Yet a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature now 
~Emily Dickinson

 

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“…one of the great poems of American literature. The statement of the poem is profound; it remarks the absolute separation between man and nature at a precise moment in time.  The poet looks as far as she can into the natural world, but what she sees at last is her isolation from that world.  She perceives, that is, the limits of her own perception. But that, we reason, is enough. This poem of just more than sixty words comprehends the human condition in relation to the universe:

So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

But this is a divine loneliness, the loneliness of a species evolved far beyond all others. The poem bespeaks a state of grace. In its precision, perception and eloquence it establishes the place of words within that state.  Words are indivisible with the highest realization of human being.”
~N. Scott Momaday from The Man Made of Words

 

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On the first day I took his class on Native American Mythology and Lore in 1974 at Stanford, N.Scott Momaday strolled to the front, wrote the 60 words of this Dickinson poem on the blackboard.  He told us we would spend at least a week working out the meaning of what he considered the greatest poem written — this in a class devoted to Native American writing and oral tradition.  In his resonant bass, he read the poem to us many times, rolling the words around his mouth as if to extract their sweetness. This man of the plains, a member of the Kiowa tribe, loved this poem put together by a New England recluse poet — someone as culturally distant from him and his people as possible.

But grace works to unite us, no matter our differences, and Scott knew this as he led us, mostly white students, through this poem.  What on the surface appears a paean to late summer cricket song doomed to extinction by oncoming winter, is a statement of the transcendence of man beyond our understanding of nature and the world in which we, its creatures, find ourselves.

As summer begins its descent into the dark death of winter, we, unlike the crickets, become all too aware we too are descending, particularly when the skies are filled with smoke from uncontrolled wildfires in the north, the east and the south.  There is no one as lonely as an individual facing their mortality and no one as lonely as a poet facing the empty page, in search of words to describe the sacrament of sacrifice and perishing.

Yet the Word brings Grace unlike any other, even when the cricket song, pathetic and transient as it is, is gone.  The Word brings Grace, like no other, to pathetic and transient man who will emerge transformed.

There is no furrow on the glow.  There is no need to plow and seed our salvaged souls, already lovingly planted and nurtured by our Creator God, yielding a fruited plain.

 

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Heart Strung on Tethers

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A weaver, this spider, she plays her eight thin
black legs and their needle-nail toes across
the threads faster, more precisely, than a harpist
at concert can pluck the strings in pizzicato.

Although blind at night, she nevertheless
fastens a thread to a branch of chokecherry
on one side of the path, links it to a limb
of shining sumac opposite, latches the scaffold
to ground stone and brace of rooted grasses.
And the structure takes dimension.

Skittering upside down across and around,
she hooks the hooks, knots the widening
spirals, the tightened radii, orbs and hubs,
bridges and bridgeheads. We can never hear
the music she makes as she plucks her silk
strings with all the toes and spurs and tarsal
tufts of her eight legs at once. She performs
the reading of her soul.

She expands the sky, her completed grid
a gamble, a ploy played on the night. The silk
is still, translucent and aerial, hanging in a glint
of half-moon. The work is her heart strung
on its tethers, ravenous, abiding.
~Pattiann Rogers from  “Hail, Spirit”

 

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I too often feel stretched between several points as well.

I attach to important touch points and I weave between them, sometimes not sure where I’ll land or what I’ll connect with or what I’ll leave behind.

Sometimes what I create is beautifully delicate and functional.
Sometimes it is blurry and out of focus.
The center doesn’t always hold.  The tethers loosen.  The periphery frays.

But it was once something.  That’s all that matters.

 

 

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A Threshold Between Earth and Heaven

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I know for a while again,
the health of self-forgetfulness,
looking out at the sky through
a notch in the valley side,
the black woods wintry on
the hills, small clouds at sunset
passing across. And I know
that this is one of the thresholds
between Earth and Heaven,
from which I may even step
forth from myself and be free.
~ Wendell Berry, Sabbaths 2000

 

 

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I was told once by someone I respected that my writing reflected “sacramental” living —  touching and tasting the holiness of everyday moments, as if they are the cup and bread that sustains us daily.

I have allowed that feedback to sit warmly beside me, like a welcome companion during the many hours I struggle with what to share here.

It is now apparent to me it is all too tempting to emphasize sacrament over the sacrifice it represents.  As much as I love the world and the beauty in the moments I find here, my search should be for the entrance to the “thin places” between heaven and earth, by forgetting self and stepping forth through a holy threshold into something far greater.

There is a scary freedom in the sacrificial life, a wonderful terrifying illuminating freedom, still far beyond my grasp.

I may even step
forth from myself and be free.

 

 

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To Turn Suffering Into Beauty

 

 

(Poetry) matters because it’s beautiful. It matters because it tells the truth, the human truth about the complexity of life. . .
It tells the entire truth about what it is to be alive, about the way of the world, about life and death.
Art embodies that complexity and makes it more understandable, less frightening, less bewildering.
It matters because it is consolation in times of trouble.
Even when a poem addresses a painful subject, it still manages to be consoling, somehow, if it’s a good poem.
Poetry has an unearthly ability to turn suffering into beauty.

Be a good steward of your gifts.
Protect your time.
Feed your inner life.
Avoid too much noise.
Read good books,
have good sentences in your ears.
Be by yourself as often as you can.
Walk.
Take the phone off the hook.
Work regular hours.

~Jane Kenyon from A Hundred White Daffodils

 

 

There’s nothing “regular” about the hours I work and I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to obsessive commitment of my time.  My phone is attached to me day and night for good reason.  I don’t read enough, don’t particularly enjoy being alone, don’t spend enough time walking nowhere in particular and am immersed full time in the noise of life.

Yet I recognize beauty when I hear it, see it and read it.  Sometimes I actually write it.

In the meantime,  I cleave to good sentences in my heart and the cadence of good phrases in my ears.  It’s what a good steward and harvester of words must do.

 

 

Scattering Souls Like Spores

 

 

Most lie low, flourishing with damp,
harvesting sunlight, no commotion, moss
mouse-silent, even through wind and hail,
stoic through motors roaring fumes,
through fat-clawed bears grubbing.

They can soothe the knife-edges of stones
with frothy leaf by leaf of gray-green life,
and burned-ground mosses cover destruction,
charred stumps, trees felled and blackened.
Cosmopolitan mosses likewise salve
sidewalk cracks, crumbling walls.

They root in thin alpine air, on sedentary
sand dunes, cling to cliff seeps beneath
spilling springs. For rest, they make mats
on streamside banks, for pleasure produce silky
tufts, wavy brooms of themselves in woodlands
for beauty, red roof moss for whim, elf
cap, hair cap, sphagnum for nurturing.

No fossil record of note, no bone
history, so lenient they possess only
those memories remembered.

I believe they could comfort the world
with their ministries. That is my hope,
even though this world be a jagged rock,
even though this rock be an icy berg of blue
or a mirage of summer misunderstood
(moss balm for misunderstanding),
even though this world be blind and awry
and adrift, scattering souls like spores
through the deep of a starlit sea.
~Pattiann Rogers “The Moss Method”

 

 

 

Moss completely carpets our front lawn –
only a few blades of grass persist within spongy moisture-retaining greenery.
When the rains stop and the sun turns up the temperature,
the faux-grass mat withers to shades of brown and sits dormant,
waiting patiently for fall rains to thrive luxurious again.

A messy mossy forgiveness.

Just so,
the words I write
are like doormats of moss,
lying thick as a carpet across the page,
piled one upon another,
some more beautiful,
some so plain as not to be noticed,
some dry out quickly when the heat turns on,
some with just the right curve and form
to make a difference,
cushioning my fall
with a gentle grace.

 

 

Preparing Through Parable: Getting the Message

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Every happening, great and small, 
is a parable whereby God speaks to us, 
and the art of life is to get the message.
…Listening to great music, or reading great literature,

an inner rhythm is detected and the heart rejoices,
and a light breaks which is none other than
God’s love shining through all of creation.
~Malcolm Muggeridge from his lecture “Christ and the Media”

 

For Lent this year, each day will be devoted to a story Jesus told –his parables–
to help each of us “get the message” in a way we might not otherwise.

Whether about a lost coin, a wandering sheep, a light hidden from view,
or a hypercritical older brother:  the parable told is about me and choices I make.

 

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Every day is filled with stories told
and I feel too rushed to listen,
to take time for transformation
by what I see or feel or hear,
no matter how seemingly
small and insignificant.

When I pause
for the parable,
it makes all the difference:

A steaming manure pile
becomes the crucible for my failings
transformed into something useful,
a fertilizer to be spread
to grow what it touches.

An iced-over water barrel
reflects distant clouds
above me as I peer inside,
its frozen blue eye focused
past my brokenness
to mirror a beauty
far beyond.

An old barn roof awaiting repair
has gaps torn of fierce winds,
allowing rain and snow
and invading vines inside
what once was safe and secure,
a sanctuary exposed to storms.

I am looking.
I am listening.
Getting the message.
Badly in need of repair.
To be changed, transformed,
and to become part
of the story being told.

 

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Beyond the Reach of Meaning

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At sundown when a day’s words
have gathered at the feet of the trees
lining up in silence
to enter the long corridors
of the roots into which they 
pass one by one thinking
they remember the place
as they feel themselves climbing
away from their only sound
while they are being forgotten
by their bright circumstances
they rise through all the rings
listening again 
afterward as they
listened once and they come
to where the leaves used to live
during their lives but have gone now
and they too take the next step
beyond the reach of meaning
~ W. S. Merwin “To a Leaf Falling in Winter”

 

 

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“Last forever!” Who hasn’t prayed that prayer? You were lucky to get it in the first place. The present is a freely given canvas. That it is constantly being ripped apart and washed downstream goes without saying.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

 

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…writing was one way to let something of lasting value emerge
from the pains and fears of my little, quickly passing life.
Each time life required me to take a new step into unknown spiritual territory,
I felt a deep, inner urge to tell my story to others–
Perhaps as a need for companionship but maybe, too,
out of an awareness that my deepest vocation
is to be a witness to the glimpses of God I have been allowed to catch.

~Henri Nouwen

 

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For too much of my life I have focused on the future, bypassing the present in my headlong rush to what lies ahead.  There is always a goal to achieve,  a conclusion becoming commencement of the next phase, a sunset turning right around in a few hours to become sunrise.

Yet the most precious times occur when the present is so overwhelming, so riveting, so tenderly full of life that I see a brief glimpse of God.  I must grab hold with all my strength to try and secret it away and keep it forever.  Of course the present still slips away from me, elusive and evasive, torn to bits by the unrelenting movement of time.

Even if I was able to take a photo to lock it to a page or screen, it is not enough.  No matter how I choose to preserve the canvas of the present, it is passed, ebbing away never to return.

I must wonder at the present by focusing less on the foreshortening future.

So I write to harvest those times to make them last a little bit longer.  Maybe not forever; they will inevitably be lost downstream into the ether of unread words.

Even if unread, I am learning that words, which had power in the Beginning to create life,  bring tenderness and meaning back to my life.   How blessed to live the gift twice: not just in the moment itself but in writing words that preserve and treasure it all up, if only for a moment before they fall, completed.

 

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