The Words Return

It’s here: The day when the pressure of wanting to write outweighs the pressure to be wrapped in silence. I could be reentering the world from a monk’s cell, where I am allowed neither the input of others’ words nor the output of my own. Some part of the cell is the grief that returned to my doorstep as the first Thanksgiving without Ruth Ann’s earthly presence approached. But the greater part is the need for rest, for time to let my heart’s fields be fallow, for time to allow all the good and the bad, the bidden and the unbidden of this year to settle, to compost and fertilize whatever is next to emerge.

Over the last weeks my internal images shifted. I’ve been at sea for months. First, alone and adrift in a life boat, watching as the ship that was carrying me sinks beneath storm-driven waves. Later, my lifeboat sprouts oars, and I can row. No land is in sight. I have no course to follow, and no stars to guide my way. I row anyway, not knowing where I am going, or even if I am going anywhere. There is just rowing, and the vast expanse of ocean surrounding me.

Weeks later, in France, another shift. The wooden lifeboat transforms into a Zodiac, propelled by two powerful outboard motors. I stand at the helm, the throttle open all the way. The rubber craft skips over the tops of the waves, as much borne by air as water. The salt spray stings my face and eyes. I still have no idea where I’m going, but wherever “there” is, I’m getting there fast, and the speed is exhilarating.

In the gentle warmth of January afternoon sun, a new image, a new landscape, emerges. There is a field, with plowed and ready soil, stretching towards the horizon, waiting. I do not know if I’ve already sown seeds that will soon sprout, or if there are yet unknown seeds to be planted.

The field does not give me an answer. In winter, when life is tucked away safely into dark earth, awaiting warmth, both planted and barren soil looks the same. But I know that I’ve tilled the ground, and that it is ready to support whatever new life is ready to grow, be it already planted or yet to be sown.



Turning Towards Light

Ruth Ann died five months ago. Meanwhile, the earth completed another quarter of its journey around the sun. Spring’s pastels of iris and dogwood are replaced by bold watermelon pink and purple crape myrtles, scarlet gladiolas, and orange day lilies that defy soaring heat and lack of rain. The last of the magnolia blossoms still perfume heavy summer air. The hours of light grow imperceptibly shorter each day, while the hours of night lengthen towards the darkness of winter.

I live in a precarious balance between light and darkness. Daylight hours of walking, music, knitting, and being encircled in the kindness of friends brings laughter, peace, and grounding among the living. Quiet nights bring reflection and sadness. In daylight, when I remember to breathe slowly and appreciate the fragility of all that I love, grace and gratitude can guide my way. Darker nights assail me with futility, with knowing all will be lost in the end, and leave me relieved to see the sunrise.

Someone had just passed away when I arrived at the Hospice unit last Tuesday. Family had not made it to the bedside before the patient’s final breath. I had unpacked my harp and was playing in the hallway outside this hospital room when the family arrived in a rush of heartbreak and weeping.  Once inside the room a young girl began keening,”No, no, no….I don’t want her to be dead.”

I kept playing. I kept fingers moving on the harp strings while her sobs crescendoed into wailing that echoed down the hallways with desperate cries of “No, no, no….come back, come back.” I hoped that Music could in some way comfort her fear and ease her pain, could in some way say to this family, “The world has felt this grief, and created these tunes to stand beside you on this hard journey.”

I’ve thought about this young girl all week. Thought about how she was able to scream her pain and give voice to the same words I mouthed so quietly to myself when I found out Ruth Ann was dead: No, no, no. . . . Come back, come back. . . . I don’t want you to be dead. And I see how these are everybody’s words, everybody’s desperate desire. The price of love is that we will tumble down in seemingly endless eddies of grief and fear when the ones we love leave us behind on this suddenly empty and lonely earth.

When I was twenty-something, I thought the Buddhist concept of non-attachment meant that we were not supposed to love, not supposed to care. That we were supposed to walk blasély through the world, indifferent to who and what it offered to us. Life and love and loss teach a different translation: that we must care about, and love, all that the world offers with all our heart, but with open hands. Open hands that do not clutch and grab at what is passing from them. Open hands that allow the heartbreak of endings. And open hands that once empty, are willing receptacles for approaching, as-yet-unknown joys.

In the heat and glare of a July day, darkness grows, and winter approaches. But today I remember that it is in the darkness of December, and the cold depths of winter, that the earth again turns towards light.


Enduring Impermanence

Everything changes. All that is, someday will not be.

I do not like this state of affairs one bit.

My teacher’s husband was just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It has already metastasized to his liver. My dear friend just lost one cousin to stroke as she helped his brother with his chemotherapy appointment. A long-time friend, five years younger than me, is near the end of her fight with the stage four pancreatic cancer diagnosed six months ago.

Everything changes. All that is, someday will not be.

Everything in the outer world that fills my heart with joy hangs by the slimmest of threads, ready to end in nothingness. The people I love, and the people who create the places and things I love to do are so fragile compared to entropy’s onward march to oblivion. How does one tender heart hold both love and loss in equal measure?

Everything changes. All that is, someday will not be.

When it gets this ugly inside my head, I head to the ocean, head to the solace of the sea. Sitting on sand beside blue-green water, breathing to the rhythm of wave in, wave out, impermanence does not frighten me. Each wave breaks on shore in its own fashion, unique and separate for one brief moment, and then dissolves back to ocean’s depths. Light dances, each sparkle on the water existing for barely a second, yet the air shimmers like diamonds.

With only an eye-blink the scene changes. The water darkens from blue-green to turquoise. A cloud scuds across the sun and the ocean is cobalt. A line of pelicans glides overhead, wings motionless, and disappears into gray dots on the eastern horizon. The retreating tide exposes sand that moments ago was sea floor. Here, impermanence creates beauty that quiets my thoughts and soothes my soul.

Back home, it’s the impermanence of chlorophyl that creates the world of color in which I walk each morning.  Trees glow with garnet, topaz, and carnelian in morning light. With each night more green disappears; with each morning fewer jeweled leaves adorn the trees. I walk on carpets of color that crunch and crackle under my feet. Impermanence brings beauty once again.

My friend is not yet so close to death that time has lost its meaning. Her hours are long. Her days drag on even longer, the monotony broken by visits from friends and hospice nurses, and from the nodding off that the narcotics deliver in place of real sleep. She bears the pain better than the boredom. An active life that six months ago was filled with career, travel, and a vivacious social life is pared down to a narrow path between recliner, bathroom and hospital bed.

Everything changes. All that is, someday will not be.

I brought my harp to her house and played for her today.

I’ve not played for one specific person at their bedside before. My hospital harping is in the hallway – I don’t have direct patient contact. I play there with the intention and hope that Music will bring ease to whoever might be troubled, be it their body, heart, or soul, but without knowing if or how patients are affected.

My friend was tucked up in her recliner, staring at the muted television when I arrived. As I set up my harp and bench, I told her that she did not have to do anything – no applause or conversation – but drift with the music as much as she was able. I played my favorite Celtic tunes, the ones I know by heart – tunes that echo joy and heartbreak, tunes that remember journeys and leave-takings and lands and people lost or left far behind: Aran Boat Song, Skye Boat Song, Loch Broom, Glentain Glas, Inisheer, and more.

What my friend Kristin calls the “harp magic” did its work. Despite my own uncertainties and fumbled notes, her breathing deepened and she slept, deep restful sleep. When she awoke an hour later, she whispered one word: “soothing.” I told her I would come and play again if she liked. “Yes,” she said. “Please play again.”

Everything changes. All that is, someday will not be. Impermanence marks every wave, every turning leaf, every breath, every life. My friend is dying. But today Music, the mystery wave that exists without form or substance, lives and works her magic. Today Music allows us both to endure impermanence. My friend finds moments of comfort and ease, and I find joy in and gratitude for sharing these moments with her.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Foreshadow


It’s the height of summer. Yet amidst the heat and humidity, the turning wheel approaches autumn.

Already shadows are longer. Already the quality of morning and evening light is softer and more golden. Already a scrub maple beside the market parking lot is crimson. Already the day lily foliage yellows, and chipmunks search for first acorns.

While we humans celebrate summer’s glory, those closer to the earth and the seasons prepare.