All those Young Lives

RJS 1915

My grandfather in his Army uniform taken just before World War I. He was sent to fight in France.

This is my teenage grandfather on his way to the first world war.  Does he look scared?  Standing ramrod straight and expressionless in stark contrast with the bucolic backdrop.  Perhaps the photographer told him not to smile — war is serious business, after all.   I look at him and it’s hard to imagine what he was thinking, this son of English and Irish immigrants, born and raised on Staten Island, NY, about to go off and fight German soldiers in France.  I wonder what it was like for him over there?

Roderick James Stanfield was luckier than many who went off to fight in that war.  He came home physically unscathed.  I knew him as a kind, soft-spoken man who entertained us by pulling coins out of our ears.  He must have had stories to tell, but I never got a chance to ask — he died when I was younger than he was when he went to war.  Instead, I made do with reading poetry written by so many impossibly young and talented boys, many of whom did not return home to the people who loved them best. I read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth and cried. The scope of all those young lives lost was hard to comprehend. The suffering of all the survivors, almost unfathomable.

The sixteen year-old me weeping over the carnage of World War I still naively believes that the best way to honor the dead is to love and respect the living.

The present me, shell-shocked by the last two years of rampant xenophobia and nationalism is hanging on to hope. For the sake of young Roderick James Stanfield and so many, many more.

The Boy Who Climbed Trees

He climbed trees not for the thrill
of the effort it took, but for the vantage point
it offered.

Come here and look — 
A whisper of wind licked the skin on
his arms and traveled the nape of his neck
as he sat in a notch near the top of the tree
where he could see
past the confines of his small yard,
past his small town,
to the mountains that encircled them.

Beyond that was a world he tried to imagine,
and time on the wings of birds flying past
promising          promising          promising
plenty more trees out there,
waiting for him to climb.

 

~~ For Tom, Tommy, Tomas
Begun on May 6, 2018 to mark twenty years. Still a work in progress.

 

It didn’t snow on April 6th

April 6, 2018. This is not what spring is supposed to look like.

twenty-seven years ago.
There was sunshine and abundant warmth on that day,
a blessed gift after a solid week of rain.
Our son was a corybantic toddler in need of a playground
and an ice cream cone.
We were all desperate for ice cream,
that harbinger of truly spring when the days open again
to burgeoning possibilities
like green shoots bursting from the sodden ground.
And so, when the phone rang as we were leaving,
I did not answer it;
I answered my heart instead.

Years from now I doubt that
I will remember that it snowed today,
or that my husband brought home pizza
as a consolation for the weather.
To render a day in such focus that you never forget it
requires the prism of an unanswered call
that waits to inform you that your brother is dead.
It casts an image so sharp you can play it back at will:
a heart answered; a brother gone; and still the world spins.
There was also ice cream that day, and laughter.
I remember that. What there was always counts
as much as what there is no more.

*For Puck who is always in my heart.

 

A Proper Farewell

Toni, Alison, Me. Canterbury, UK 2013

My friend Alison is gone. In a blink. Like the flutter of a bird’s tiny wing. Suddenly and unexpectedly. I hate that there was no time to say goodbye. It sucks that we have no say in who we lose, and when. Life is hard enough the way it is. We should get to say a proper farewell to the people we love. And Alison was someone I truly loved.

That we met at all was a fluke. That when we did we became friends was as if preordained. I can’t remember whether I first hired her to pick my field or she hired me to pick hers, but that was the beginning. We chatted, because it was what you did on Farm Town. You talked to a total stranger who lived who knows where in the world because you could. In our case it turned out that we were 3300 miles apart with an ocean between us.  We quickly sussed how much we both loved to read ALL THE WORDS in all the books (when we weren’t making art out of imaginary fields on virtual farms, of course). We friended one another on Facebook, and continued to talk over the Farm Town fence where we learned that we each had an only child we were awed by, and who, despite being opposite genders and nearly seven years apart in age, were remarkably similar in their temperament and interests.  How could we not become true friends?

Eventually, we met in real life. I adored her daughter as she loved my son. We were like sisters once separated through no fault of our own,  now found, and reunited. It was happy days again. It was happy days each of the handful of times we got to spend time face-to-face.

Alison had a wicked sense of humor. She was one of the sharpest wits I knew. But she was an introvert like me, and she would go quiet occasionally, when the world was too much for her, and I recognized that tendency in myself. There are times when words are not enough and only the space for silent contemplation will do.

Still, I wish I would have told her how brilliant I thought she was, how much she made me laugh. I wish I would have let her know those naughty (but erudite) words I looked up for writing on her cast when she broke her arm. (rantallion, bescumber, fustylug, stympahlist.) They would have made her laugh. We should tell the people we love that we love them. We shouldn’t take for granted that they will know how much they mean to us unless we do.

I wish I could have thanked her for the years we had as friends. I wish I could tell her how the light is a little dimmer now that she’s not here.

In lieu of the card I did not send

Please accept this poem.
I wrote it with best intentions
a miracle in making, as all things made in earnest are
when thought finds a willing receptacle.

Instead of tidying the house
I spent days searching for words.
Meaningful words that dribbled
agonizingly slow,
or flew above my head
in the manner of teasing birds
whose waggling feathers I snatched
when I could.
(I did not hurt them. I promise.)

I set it before you now
as the welcome mat to my heart,
my wish for your comfort.
Come in. I love you. Let us share in Grace.

Family Recipe


First, you will need a lake:
Preferably one in which you once flapped fish-like, laughter lifting in iridescent bubbles from your lips.
Best results are achieved mid-summer, when days feel like new clothes you are trying on.

You will also need:
An infant whose buoyancy is limitless.
A father with a never-ending capacity for love.
A mother who adores them both.

Dip the baby in the lake —
that baptismal font of past generations whose sloughed-off atoms may yet be felt.
The sun will bless you with its warmth.

Swirl the baby through the water; kiss and love him well. Hold him
with tender hands. Do not let go. Dip and swirl until
laughter lifts in iridescent bubbles from his lips.
Memory is made from molecules like this.

Repeat as often as you like.
Calorie count is negligible.

About the ingredients:
This is my personal recipe. Your infant/s can be any number, any gender; likewise  parental combination. You can add a village. Water can be an ocean.
Love and Laughter should NOT be omitted under any circumstance.

Us Walking

The tree behind us is a dogwood. I know that because a man we encountered on one of our walks told us when we asked. Then he offered to take our picture in front of the tree. Afterwards, he handed the phone back to me and said, “I like seeing people in love.”

My Husband Walking
(musings from my notebook)

On his first morning home from the hospital I listen to the sound of my husband walking, bare feet padding determinedly along the floor. I am reassured by the sound of his footsteps tracing a back and forth route from the laundry room at one end of the house to the kitchen at the other. Instructed to walk a mile every day of his convalescence, he is dedicated to the task. He walks the route several times throughout the day.

After a few days his stride picks up, his heels land stronger, with force enough to rattle the small things cluttering the table and the desktop. A few days more and he graduates to walking the driveway. I cannot hear his footsteps outside. I realize I miss the sound.

~~~~~

Weeks before my husband’s surgery, we began walking. We needed the time together, the closeness, the exercise – all of it to be ready for whatever was to come.  Yesterday, the thirteenth day after his surgery, he had the catheter and staples removed. There is still work ahead to get him back to where he was, but I look forward to our renewed walking in the evening again.

Today is our anniversary. Today we have been married for thirty years. It’s impossible to calculate how many miles we’ve accumulated in our walking through all that time. Sometimes, I wonder how we’ve managed such a feat. And then I remember this:

Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”    ~~ Antoine de Saint-Expuery 

And I realize that that is the thing that has gotten us to where we are, that looking outward in the same direction. Here’s to us walking, looking outward together for thirty more.

An Open Letter to Rev. Franklin Graham from a “Small Church” Pastor

I was raised Catholic. After decades of soul-searching, my religious beliefs have come to fall in the category of atheist. However, I do believe fervently in treating all living creatures with courtesy and respect. Treat others as you would wish yourself to be treated. I often fall short of that, but I keep trying.

What terrifies me more than the ridiculous buffoon we have as the leader of this country, is where the country is headed morally and in the name of “Christianity.” I’m sharing this today because this guy, Peter, says it so much better than I ever could. It’s long, but definitely worth the read. If you can’t read the entire piece, than this section sums it up nicely:

“So let me see if I have this figured out correctly: God doesn’t give a flying fruitcake if we deprive twenty-million people, most of them poor, of access to health care. Nor is God particularly concerned about how men treat women in the workplace, how people of color are treated in the real estate market, how the hungry and homeless are cared for (or not), but God flips out if we bake a cake for a same sex couple to celebrate their wedding? I have to be honest with you, Frank. I’m just not seeing it. Not in the Bible, not in the realm of rational common sense.”

 

Source: An Open Letter to Rev. Franklin Graham from a “Small Church” Pastor

Strange Tableau

Original photo by Barbara Johansen Newman. Futzed with by me.

The stage was set, the performance about to begin. Cupid aimed his arrow at Véronique. She was not a willing participant in this grand guignol. Alas, poor Yorick,  wearing a wretched grin — his was not a speaking role, stuck as he was between la dame and the ridiculous Louis, whose eyes rolled relentlessly heavenward. The bit players barely noticeable at the back. All of them waiting for the houselights to dim. As they did every day, except for Sunday when the public attended church to confess the sin of misplaced curiosity.

At the front of the stage, there was no mask to represent comedy. Tragedy was the only play held here.

 

n.b. My friend Barbara is currently on a Viking River Cruise. She’s been generous in sharing her photos with those of us who are stuck at home. One of the places she visited was Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic.   There were a couple of museum-y kinds of places with large collections of puppets and marionettes.  This evolved from one of the photos she posted. My imagination ran a little wild. I am thinking of making my own strange tableau.

The beach even in winter

is still the beach,
still the sand,
and the gulls gliding low,
while a piper darts
along the curled edge of water —
too cold for wading,
too cold for swimming,
but for the stalwart few
enrobed in rubber
who persist in their passion
for riding waves.

After days of rain-slashed sodden skies
the sun lures people like me
desperate for a glimpse
of impending spring.
Mostly we sit in our cars
to avoid the brittle wind
leaving it to the dogs in their
fur coats with the owners
who love them enough
to walk with them, hunch-shouldered,
burrowing into their store-bought coats,
all of us looking ahead,
to warmer days.