The Depth of Return

I am continuing to read Henri Nouwen’s Lenten meditations, From Fear to Love, in tandem with Anthony Bloom’s book on prayer, Beginning to Pray. Each has been insightful on its own, but the conjunction of the two is powerful. The overarching model of the Prodigal Son, from Nouwen, is especially poignant for learning how to pray. It seems that every attempt at prayer is simultaneously an attempt at making our way back to God.

Nouwen makes bold use of the aforementioned parable and says, “I want you to know that you are the younger child, you are the older child, and you are called to become the parent who loves unconditionally.”

The younger child he paints as obviously needing forgiveness. Everyone knows it. The older child is a different story, he thinks. The older child resents the Father’s forgiveness. He just can’t accept it. It’s not a reality that exists for him. That kind of forgiveness is wrong—it’s unjust. And so he resents.

But the Father forgives. He lets it all pass away, every last bit of wrongdoing that his Prodigal has done. He’s only happy to receive him.

I know that I have been all three of these characters at different moments in my life. I have had times where I resented others who I thought got off way too easily. But I have also gotten off too easily myself. I have known the mind of each of those parabled children all too well. Even still, it would be dishonest to neglect that I have played the role of the Father on some occasions as well. I thank God for the grace that was given me in those moments.

These are all outward affairs.

Nouwen wants us to take a look inside. Sometimes we can forgive others with more ease than we can forgive ourselves. It’s probably all too familiar. You hear that internal voice criticizing something that you’ve just done, maybe a mistake that isn’t a big deal. This is the older child in you. Or perhaps you’ve done something that seems unforgivable. You run, looking inside yourself for some good thing you’ve done in the past so that you can hold that up and claim that you’re not all that bad.

But it is a rare person who can actually forgive oneself. Can anyone actually forgive oneself—I mean really forgive?

It might be possible, but it seems highly unlikely. Nouwen’s model of realizing that you are all of the characters in the parable becomes heightened when you take it inside yourself, seeing how you interact with yourself in your own head. This is where Nouwen meets up with what Bloom is doing in his book on prayer.

Bloom is asking us to go inside ourselves. He’s asking us to look and see what we find. He believes that most people live from the outside, taking things into themselves. This shouldn’t be the case, he thinks. People should be living from the deep source within themselves. By this, he ultimately means God. He means meeting God as the source of your own being, your own life. But you do this by realizing that you don’t sustain yourself. At this point, you realize that the source inside of you is something other than you. And this is the only “outside” source that you should concern yourself with when it comes to the core of who you are.

To find this place, this source, it’s likely—if not necessary—to go through a Broadway drama of emotions. You will be that older child. You will resent yourself. You’ll be that younger child, too. You will run away even as you run toward the source of life. Our emotions are complicated, if beautiful, realities. There will be fluid overlap in all of our searching.

One thing will present itself as sure. In all of this wavering, all of this sea-tossed uncertainty, it becomes clear that there is a unity holding all of it together. There is the One, the source. In the moment of discovering this, you will be free. You will let go of resentment, knowing that you partake of the same source of life as those you resent. If you need to be forgiven, you will be. You will know that this Life has given your life as a gift. And while you might not be forgiving yourself here, you will have come to know forgiveness in and through yourself, through the Life that gives you life.

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Praying to our Father, the Good Shepherd

After making it quite clear that God is not a tempter, not the one who causes lust for things we don’t need, James goes on to promote a very positive view of God: Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow (James 1:17).

Previously, we considered the absence of God. But we talked about the absence of God as our space. God withdraws from us, or allows us to go out from his recognizable presence, so that we can grow up. We are enabled to walk on our own. This is a good thing, because it shows us that we are not God at the same time that we see our need for God.

There are some who say that babies don’t understand themselves as separate from their mother, at least not at first. As a baby nurses on her mother’s breast, this little one is attached, quite directly, to her mother. Soon, the baby will begin to recognize her mother’s face and, presented by this face, will realize that her mother is different from her. The baby will then begin to realize she needs her mother and must wait on her mother for help. The more the baby trusts the mother to help in a time of need the longer she can go without her.

Similarly, the more that we trust our Father in heaven to provide for our ultimate needs, the more we can feel free to explore. Rather than being a prodigal son, slapping our Father in the face with our leaving, we can go out from the Father, knowing that our going out is watched over by him. It is even encouraged.

We can learn this deeply from the 23rd Psalm. In this beautiful bit of poetry, we are met with God the Shepherd. Here we are led through a peaceful, green meadow. We are going along without a care. Quiet waters are near us, where we might quench our thirst, refresh ourselves with a cool bath, or just listen to the gentle murmuring. It’s a 19th century Romantic dream.

Soon, we come to the vale. Most translations render this vale as valley: “the valley of the shadow of death.” But the Hebrew is more like a vale; it’s a covering that obscures the vision. It’s a shadow that falls over our head. And that shadow is death.

But death is not the end.

The writer of this Psalm confidently claims to have no fear. And the psalmist credits this lack of fear to the good shepherding skills of God. If there is evil, God will use his rod to ward it off. If the psalmist should begin to stray, God will use his staff to redirect him. There is nothing to fear with this kind of guide who pays so close attention.

The psalmist is soon surrounded by a feast with the soothing salve of oil on his head. Robert Alter, in his translation and commentary on the Psalms, wants us to be clear that this is a sensual  scene. We could say that most of this Psalm has appealed to the senses: sense of rest, sense of danger, and now a sense of final victory. Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life (Psalm 23:6).

Perhaps the strongest sense that we get from the Psalm is that we are traveling with God. Again, we are not prodigals here. Even in the danger, we are with God. God does not always preserve us from danger. Sometimes it can be good to get the heart pumping. Broken bones heal stronger than they were before the break.

James teaches us that God is not a tempter. That is something our enemies do. But God does bring us through trials with the goal of making us stronger.

Blessed is a person who perseveres under trial; for once this person has passed the test this one will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him (James 1:12). Surely…I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever (Psalm 23:6).

God gives us just enough distance so that we can truly be something separate from God, a creation. But God never pushes us so far that we will ultimately be without God. God wants us to explore this great gift of Creation that God has given us. “Dear Child,” says God “Go play. Discover what you can do. I’ll bandage you up if you get hurt. I will be here when the sun goes down to pick you up from the playground. But play, play for now.”

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Facing the Absence of God With Hope

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?…Oh my God, I cry by day but you do not answer; and by night, but I have no rest (Psalm 22:1-2). The psalmist cries these words, which were later taken upon the lips of Jesus as he hung on the cross. Is there anyone who can’t feel the pain of abandonment in this prayer?


Anthony Bloom, in his insightful book Beginning To Pray, enters into the reality of prayer in perhaps an unexpected way. He talks about the absence of God. To thicken the plot a little, Bloom talks about God’s absence in lieu of God’s freedom. We cannot, in prayer, offer up some magical formula, an incantation, that would require God to be present to us. That would be no God at all. Or maybe it would be a god, but it would not be the God and Father of Jesus Christ, the Creator God who is over all things.


He continues with some illuminating reasons as to why this might be the case. When God presents Godself to us, it is always a moment of crisis—you are judged. In that judgment, you are either condemned or saved, says Bloom. He is taking a very particular, temporal view of judgment in saying this. He is not talking about eternal judgment here. Bloom is talking about what you are doing in the moment of God’s presence and what you have done up to that point. You are judged as being on the right path and so saved, or you are judged as going the wrong way and condemned.


This condemnation can be harsh on the spirit. God’s presence would not feel like light and life in this moment. Or to be more precise, the light might burn you. This is why Bloom intimates that God’s absence might best be seen as mercy sometimes. God is remaining aloof so as not to overwhelm you.


There is much to meditate on here. But I want to ask, at this point, “Can’t this absence be a kind of judgment, too?”


Bloom would agree. And maybe this is the key point here. He would say that there is judgment involved in this absence, but that it is a time where God is opening things up so that we can judge ourselves.


Henri J. M. Nouwen, the late great Catholic priest and spiritual guide, can only agree with this. In the late 1980s, Nouwen did some audio recordings of a workshop on the Prodigal Son. Bits of those recordings were recently collected into daily meditations for the season of Lent and called, From Fear to Love.


The Prodigal Son, a story found in the Gospel of Luke, is a powerful illustration of God’s relationship to his children, to us. A recalcitrant son desires his inheritance early, a smack in the face of his father’s honor. The father relents and gives it to him, whereupon the son goes away and squanders it in a far country. Having spent it all, the son comes to his senses and returns, penitently, to his father. The father, seeing him from a distance, runs to him—he clothes him, cooks a feast, and throws a party at his return.


Throughout his Lenten meditation, Nouwen takes this theme as the pattern for how we live life. We go away from our heavenly father, sometimes running, and fall into despair. Our heavenly Father lets us go and this is both a grace and a judgment. It is a grace in that we are given freedom to move away from our Father, to explore this world on our own. It is judgment if we move too far, to a place that will leave us hungry and destitute. But just as the Prodigal Son we have the hope that we will come to our senses. This will be the moment when we judge ourselves and know that we have left something good. We haven’t just set out to explore. We have abandoned our Father, going further than he intended.


But our Father’s arms are ever open. As Nouwen puts it, “The love of the Father embraces not just the return of the son but also the leaving of his child. That’s really important: the whole movement of leaving and returning is a movement done under the loving eyes of the father.” We are let go, if only to see that our way will not lead to anything resembling a home. We cannot make a life in the pig pen.


I remember visiting my aunt and uncle in Southern California, right after graduating high school. They let me drive their van around to explore the sights. It was great fun driving up and down the 101 and the Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH as the cool kids call it. My aunt told me not to drive on the beach, because the van would easily get stuck. So, of course, I was curious. And at the prodding of my cousins I went against my better judgment in favor of curiosity.


The beach was fun to drive on as we rolled past a bunch of surfers stoking their fire pits for the night. It was a lot of fun right up until we tried to turn around to go back. We were stuck, and I was embarrassed. We had to get some surfers to hook up a chain to their 4X4 and pull us out. Our episode in testing the boundaries turned out alright, but I was shoulder-slumped when I told my aunt what happened. With a little joking at my expense, she gave me a hug and told me that we were ok. She still loved me, and I learned a lot about respecting someone’s property.


There have been other times that I’ve gone off into my own desire. When I was finally old enough to have a pocket knife, my dad taught me how to use it safely. He showed me how always to cut away from myself. But I wanted to figure things out on my own. I cut every which way with that knife only to end up cutting my finger. Thankfully, the cut wasn’t that bad, but I began thinking about what I did. I deliberately went against good advice and wounded myself. My dad was irritated but saw that I learned my lesson. I ended up grounding myself and giving the knife to my dad for a time.  


Sometimes we are merely curious; other times we are stubborn in our ways. Whichever the case may be, our Father gives us room. He opens up space so that we might grow and learn in the growing. We are never actually forsaken, not even in our Father’s absence. Even though it might be painful, his absence is love.

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The Architecture of Life

“There are but two strong conquerors of the forgetfulness of men, Poetry and Architecture; and the latter in some sort includes the former, and is mightier in its reality.  It is well to have, not only what men have thought and felt, but what their hands have handled and their strength wrought, and their eyes beheld, all the days of their life.” -John Ruskin

“I’m…a ponderous house.” -Sylvia Plath


“This will not be the last cup of tea that I drink.”  Angie sat in the darkness, rocking in her chair.  She was alone and singing fear into the air.  But rocking chairs have rocked for centuries and this thought made her feel secure.  She felt she could endure whatever made it through the door—even if it were a crack of light.  And the light did come, riding on the peaks of wooden floorboards, deepening the grooves between them.  In the histrionics of darkness and light, she saw herself being played.

“This will not be the last cup of tea that I drink,” she sat thinking.  She was looking away from the light, not ready to make its acquaintance.  Last night was the longest she’d had in a string of long nights.  It was long enough to forget about the Sun and think it an enemy, or at least an unwelcome guest.  The Moon was more her friend now.  She misses the dark-blue sky that was its backdrop.  She misses the gentle, white light that settled like fresh snow on everything within its reach.  She does not miss the firelight, now only faintly glowing embers.  But she does miss the crack of burning wood.

Pressing her foot against the floorboards, she’s determined to hear the crack of wood again.  Whether it takes moving the floorboards or her rocking chair, something’s going to creak.  And something does.  It didn’t sound like wood.  The twinge of pain, which shoots its way up her leg, makes her curse her knee.  She continues to press the floorboards.  Even with all of the creaks it made as it was settling, this house has stood firm.  Maybe her bones will do the same.

She remembers.  Her father built this house when he was a young man “wearin’ nothin’ but a holey pair o’ Levi’s.”  Every day was alike to him in those days.  His hammer would swing on Sunday afternoon as if it were Monday morning.  But he knew the Bible; he knew that its most important event involved a hammer and some nails.  This was church enough for him.

Fresh from the sanctuary, some of the young ladies would bring him their offerings.  Usually, it was a hodge-podge of morsels, scrapped from supper the night before.  It was never so much that the otherwise keen mothers of these young ladies would notice.  But with the generous number of offerings, the young man made out just fine for Sunday dinner.  On some occasions, there would be enough left over to eat for a couple of days into the week.

Soon the house neared completion; it became clear that only one of these young ladies would be able to join him in it.  That is, this became clear to the ladies.  It was always a clear fact to him.  “I knew all them always showin’ up ‘as gonna be a problem sooner or later,” he recounted, “But it ‘came a habit, e’en a rit’yal so that I cou’n’t stop it.  Cause, there’s only one way t’ stop a rit’yal.  That’s by doin’ another’n in its stead.”

He got married to the one girl who refused to bring him any food.  She was, to be sure, the prettiest of the girls.  But he noticed something else.  She was the smartest.  She would have been the town school teacher, save the mayor’s daughter being the same age and fresh out of finishing school.  Vera—the smart girl, not the mayor’s daughter—taught him how to read and to do arithmetic enough to make some corrections to his house.  For this he was grateful and maybe a little awestruck.

Angie knew all of this by heart, of course.  She was just remembering it a second ago.  But this is the first time that it felt distant.  She was sitting in the same rocking chair that her father sat himself in to tell this story.  Well, the chair was mostly the same.  One of the arms had been knocked off some years back.  It was fixed by wood glue and a few nails, more or less right after it was knocked off, but the years had freed it up to wobble.  The wobbling might have caused her memory to sway a little.  Maybe that was the cause of the distant feeling.  Bits of Thom seemed to slide in where they didn’t belong.

Thom and Angie were born the same week, late in the spring—Thom on Monday, Angie on Thursday.  They were baptized together, the following Sunday.  The minister poured water on each tiny head, speaking the Triune name over each hairless bundle of humanity.

They played under the table when they were young, five years old.  They used to notch things on the underside before they could read or write in English.  They made their own language; the vocabulary was limited, but they knew all the words and all the letters.  That was the important thing.

One day, before all of this sketching started, Angie and her mother went out for a walk.  The creek near their house would often overflow during the early spring rains.  It was early spring.  A very old Willow tree used to sit prominently on the bank of this creek.  Now, it was in the creek.

The next day it was clear that the Willow had seen too many springs.  Its roots became branches, and its branches became roots planted in the creek bed.  It was a major event in the town.  Angie watched as men from the town gathered.  And she watched as they started to debate one another: “What’re we gonna do with this thing?”  Angie’s father and Thom’s were, as usual, on the same debate team.  The three other men, who also lived along the creek, were, as usual, on the other side of things.

Angie’s father and Thom’s father, who was the minister who baptized the two children, were artists in a town of pragmatists—and not the John Dewey kind of pragmatist.  The most creative thing these other men had ever attempted was to paint some of their wheelbarrows red.  And that was only so they could tell the difference between their manure wheelbarrows meant for gardening and their other wheelbarrows meant for carrying tools and chemicals to repair things.

No, these men wanted this tree to be firewood.  The altar looked fine, never mind the broken legs.  It still stands.  “Just keep those boys o’ yours off it, Reverend.”  They were referring to the well known event when Thom and his older brother, Walther, had knocked the altar over.

The boys were attempting to fly.  Being boys and not birds, they knew that they needed some kind of advantage to overcome the defect of not having wings.  They needed height.  The altar was not only high; it was long enough to provide three, maybe four, running steps for takeoff.  Removable pew cushions would break their fall, just in case they weren’t able to fly right away.  All was now ready.

But Thom developed a habit of running too closely on the edge of the altar.  The altar wobbled and, when he leaped, it was set completely off balance.  It fell.  If it weren’t for the curvy Victorian legs, it might have gone down with only a dent or two.  But the legs curved at their top, making them wider than the flat tabletop.  Both of the front two legs cracked off on impact.

Angie’s father fixed the altar, though the legs were damaged enough so that it still looked a little broken.  The deficiency wasn’t due to any lack of craftsmanship on the part of Angie’s father, only to lack of materials in town.  They decided to turn the table around with the back legs now becoming the front.  The engraved “Do This in Remembrance of Me” now faced away from the congregation, which was okay because it felt a little too Zwinglian for a Lutheran church anyway.

But with a newer, sturdier, perhaps more beautiful altar, Angie’s father could engrave: “This is my Body.”

While all of the finer points of theology were being discussed around the recently fallen tree, perhaps the most typical thing of all happened.  Angie’s mother showed how all of the men were right, but how they were all a little wrong, too.

“This is quite a bit of lumber in the making—and it’s pretty fresh.  Now, it’s only spring; we have all summer to gather up wood for our winter fires.  Of course, we don’t want to be blind to God’s provision.  So, it’s best if we do store some for firewood.  But we should be thankful to God for this provision and return some to His service.  That altar is a bit shameful, I have to say.  My George could make a fine new altar,” she gestured toward Angie’s father.  “And if we’re speaking practically, my kitchen table is lit’rally on its last two legs.”  It was true.  They’d been using two old broom handles, which were made sturdy by two notches in the wooden floor where the handles could slide into.  The notches are still there.

“Our Luther was once asked what he would do if our Lord was to come back the next day.  You know what he said?  He said he would plant a tree, ‘cause he knew that our Lord would uphold that tree into eternity.  That’s what God does, He upholds his creation; he lifts the fallen things.”

This settled the issue.  The Willow would be divided for these purposes: firewood, an altar, and a table for the Blumhardt’s.  “Vera’s got us all again, fellers,” said Thom’s father, the Reverend.

When Angie and Thom first started sketching under the table, not more than a month after the Willow event, Angie transcribed two things right away: one was the symbol for her father’s name, George; the other was the lesson her mother taught everyone that day: lift the fallen things.

Angie blinks.  The light that cracked through earlier, the light that rode across the floorboards, had been travelling up Angie’s leg for some time now.  It came from a window to the left of the door.  Most of her body was covered in the light that covered most of the house also.  The light rose up to her nose, until finally it streaked across her eyes.  She grumbled something barely audible, sounds that’re unintelligible to most.  I’ll tell you that they were angry words.  I won’t interpret.

She rocks and creaks her way upward to get above the light.  As her eyes adjust back to the lesser light, the door stands in front of her.  It isn’t unhinged, just slightly crooked.  A grin, a quick survey, and a shake of the head show her empathy.

Achoo.  And she turns around to Thom’s eyes peeking over the back of the couch.  I wipe my nose as I stare at her.  She pauses for a moment as her mind moves through two generations.

“Lilith, come out of the shadows.  You’re too old to keep doing such things.”

“But Grandma, you had your remembering face.  I was just watching.”

“Well, do you mind watching a pot of tea boilin’ for us instead?”

She isn’t mad at me for standing in the shadows, mostly just sad that I wasn’t my grandfather at the moment she first saw me, sad in realizing that it couldn’t have been him.  We sang “I’ll fly away” at his funeral a week ago.  It was the only time it had ever been sung in Saint Paul’s Lutheran church in Breechesburg.

And it was only sung as Grandpa’s last earthly stunt this side of the second Advent.  I heard him tell my Dad to “take care in telling the Lord’s flock that we will all be flying back to earth with our Lord as the Lord will make earth into his celestial shore.”  As my Dad conducted the funeral ceremony, he was happy to do this.  But he was also happy to see Grandma’s knowing smile as we sang it.  Anyway, we all knew that the wooden box couldn’t contain Grandpa, now or in the future.

As the water heats to a boil, Grandma and I decide to pour the water over coffee grounds rather than tea leaves.  It’s early enough for coffee, probably too early for tea.

“Lilith, you’re my eldest grandchild,” she starts to say.  She taps her finger on the top of the coffee in her mug to test the temperature, and wipes the residue on the table in a quick sign of the cross.  The table is stained at that spot because of her liturgical fervor.  Though, she doesn’t seem to recognize what she’s done.  “I feel as if this house might lose its soul.  It has been the material protection of this family for some long years, a thick skin.  Though, with your Grandfather gone and with me being…”

“Grandma, you’re breaking your momma’s rules.”

“What, what do you mean?  You shouldn’t interru…”

“I mean you’re writing on top of the table. You were only allowed to write underneath.”

I point to the wet cross.  She smiles and settles more onto the bench, resting her head against the windowsill.  I trace my fingers on another of her momma’s lessons, the one my Grandma carved under the table some long years ago—85 to be exact.

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It was a vision populated by bamboo bars

And eucalyptus trees.  Her hands were

Rough, a complete surprise.  But maybe

That’s because I’m sexist.  Or sexless.


Australia is a land full of mixed up animals.

It seems like every other one has a pouch,

A place to keep the little ones safe from

Danger.  It’s perfect for a Freudian phalanx.


Just crawl back in buddy, a fetal failure.

Don’t worry, it’s safe and wet and warm.

No one will ever see you, mama’s fur

Blanketing the stares.  Ends and beginnings.


Anyway, her hands were rough.  And I

Liked it.  It made me want to box a

Kangaroo.  Is that something that people

Do?  Hemingway, I think, would have.


Although, I can’t help but think that most

Of what he says is more bullshit than

Bullfighting.  Besides, the stilted sentences

Lose the lilt.  It’s not about the short or long.


I think she rode horses, leather reins and no

Gloves.  Sometimes she smelled like a horse,

Especially her pants between the thighs.  It was

Good.  Horses and people belong together.


There are ancient traditions of horse mysticism.

Or at least I’m given to believe that by some.

I haven’t checked into it myself.  Don’t have

The time.  I’m willing to be enlightened.


I will say that I love horses and wish I could

Ride them all the time.  I’m not much for cars,

Whether the right or left side of the road.  I like

Fields and mountain pathways; the plodding clop.


She belongs with me.  Maybe that’s the most

Mystical of all traditions.  I can’t shake it either

Way.  I guess it doesn’t matter.  But I’ll always

Remember the horses, the hands; the Hemingway—


And Australia, the inescapable womb, the pleasant

Prison.  It’s an island and maybe a fever dream.

Every side an ocean or a sea.  I’m brought here and away;

I don’t enter or leave by my own power or design.


I never learned to sail beyond following orders.

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Marian Vision

Beauty will you sit with me,

At the edge of reality,

In the dark times of night?


A mother’s kiss would

Do away with unwanted

Dreams.  Mares of the night

Yield to a Marian sight,

An aeviternal light.


“Woman, behold your son.”

Eve is the setting of the sun.

“Behold your Mother.”


The Sun sets on a corner of a room.

A web coruscates in the falling light.

Hanging, a caterpillar is wrapped in web—

Desert by a spider’s murderous intent.


Through a window, a thin piece of glass,

I see the trees ablaze, burning unconsumed.

From another room, the doleful sound of

C minor breaches the walls.  A sonata calls.


Eve is fallen.  The trees burn no longer,

Only dark-blue silhouettes remain.

Cold and bare, Winter branches tangle,

Arthritic and aching at a glance.


Then the chants, the varied tones of

Thin Winter air—Tugboats on the water,

Trains across the river, horns, whistles,

Whispers from another time.


And in my glass of water, a glint of light,

White, diffuse, a specter not able to disabuse me of

My heavier emotions.  Still, I look for the

Source.  My eyes search; in predation or

Prayer, it’s too soon to tell.


But a soft, white light is osculating the trees.


She hangs above me.  I’m not forgotten;

I’m not unseen.  I’m illumined by a lunar

Queen.  Cold ice is white, it’s true, but so is she.

And she hangs above me, brooding warmly.


She keeps me till the sun rises.  And when it does,

I look at the web again.  The spider has not lacked

All virtue: He’s patient; he waits; too long.

His web of destruction has become a cocoon.


A Monarch decks the wall.  Bells ring through the hall.

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Visit From a Past That Lingers On

A girl from the Northwest once said, “I’ve…been contemplating the notion that modern forms of transportation are psychologically harmful.  That is, we move physically so much faster than we are able to move mentally and emotionally.  My mind and heart haven’t quite made it back here.”  Spattered memories of her have been with me for some years now.  It seems pointless, even ridiculous, that I allow myself to go back to those moments.

But I gave her a flower once.  It was picked; I picked it from a tree where train tracks hover over water.  I wish I knew the names of more flowers.  If I did, I would know the world more intimately.  Of course, the world would then be smaller, maybe less wild for its reduced size.

I gave her the unnamed flower.  Even without a name, I still know it.  I’m sure she does too.  We might know it better for lack of nomenclature.  Knowing its name, we might be swayed to confuse it with others that share the same tag or label.  It would become diluted by symbols very much unlike itself, muddied by the dark, ink symbols now under my pen.  Merely, it would be Rose or Lily.  Calling it a flower has done enough damage, however necessary it might have been.

It’s enough to know that it was white, with five petals.  It smelled sweetly.  If it were garnished with a voice, it would have sung mellifluously, displaying at least a five octave range.  As it was, it possessed the capability of rhythm, dancing as it did upon the branch of its tree.  It continued the waltz even into my hand.

The breezes blew gently that Spring, though erratically.  Flowers acted like patrons of old, setting their petals to sail in all directions.  Perhaps one of their vessels would find the Northwest Passage.  Others were less moved by the wind, though no less affected.  She and I swayed, like the branches of neighboring trees, in and out of each other’s company.  There was one time in particular when the breezes that blew would have us mingle.

She was sitting on the top step of the front stoop.  I passed her and communicated nothing more than a smile.  She smelled the flower in my hand as it floated by her cheek.  Its fragrance was arresting.  Her conversation halted as her focus turned solely to the flower.  Her eyes, rising with the perfume, turned away from the flower to settle upon my nose.  She was envious of my nose as she vicariously took a second sniff through it.  After a deep drag, her eyes made friends with my eyes.  As they chatted quietly, I leaned in curiously, to listen, desiring to make an informed intrusion.  Before I could make sense of the whispers, what must have been part of the previous parsing hit her tongue revealing, “That flower smells amazing!”

I asked if she would like to keep it, which was my intention all along.  This was a moment of drama.  Her eyes did not speak quietly about this.  They posed a serious question, hoping for an answer.  A quick sideways glance seemed to ask, “What will it mean for me to take this…this.”  Before her eyes could focus on an answer, I reached toward her and gave her the flower, the memory.  Now it belongs to the content of her mind.  It is no longer just a flower, a vague idea lacking specific reality.  It’s a flower against her memory.

I imagine: if I were to walk toward the same stoop some other day in the future and she were to be sitting on the same top step, she could be reminded of the very same flower.  The image of the flower would grow in her mind without the sounding of a single syllable.  I would play the predicate to her subject; the stoop would be our conjunction, and these concrete realities would be words enough.  These would be more specific than words.

Imagining further still, I would be walking up the sidewalk in my typical gait: my feet are turned slightly toward each other, resembling an overgrown duck.  My eyes would turn from their focus on the ground and begin to move upward as I approach the stoop.  There is another pair of feet.

Not stopping there, my eyes continue to rise.  As they do, a couple of lips appear above a chin.  These lips also begin to rise, curling upward into a smile.  Soon, two eyes meet mine.  They, like the previous pair of lips, are smiling at me.  As our eyes rise to meet each other’s, our jaws loosen, dropping only slightly.  In this moment, we each remember the flower in its particularity–without a word, without a name.  At least, I envision it could happen this way.

There is a photograph that is growing older with every word that I write.  She’s on a train, looking out the window to her left.  The seat to her right is vacant.  She’s looking for an answer.  Her eyes seem always looking for an answer.  I wrote to her about this photograph.  “Alone on a train….”  It reminded me of a song.

Even now, I can’t help but wonder if she thought of me while riding that train.  I wonder if she ever held me in her mind at all.  Maybe she did.  It could be that she was thinking of me right up to the moment before the photo was taken, and it was the brightness of the flash that finally darkened the memory of me.  Yet there was still enough of me behind her eyes to be reflected in the photo.  Probably, this is why I’m so captivated by that photo.  We’re together.  She’s on the train, and I’m in her eyes.

I went on a journey of my own.  Many moments from my trip have been captured, though I’ve never seen them.  They now exist, placarded on photosensitive paper, in someone else’s house.  They are children of the marriage between light and chemicals.  I feel like a distant uncle.  That is, if I were to meet them, I’d feel like an estranged uncle.  I prefer the images in my head.  Memory is more like a film than a photo album anyway.  It moves.

I’ve been moving through great distances.  I’ve driven across the entire country–chasing a dream, resuscitating a memory, hoping for more than an apparition.  I’ve moved through time and space.  But now, admiring Mount Hood from a distance, I stand alone in a garden, and hold another flower.  I’m here at the top of a terrace.  It’s not a stoop.  So the dialect is different, but the language is the same.

The frozen peaks of the mountain, even from this far, stir a chill.  And I wonder if she’ll ever make it back here.

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