Tuesday, March 30, 2010

prelapsarian poetry, or why i write what i cannot

i wrote this last night, a few hours after hearing about a former student of sam's, finishing his senior year in high school, who has passed away. he lost a baby sister when he was in elementary school and leaves behind two other younger siblings. Lord, have mercy.

what i want to write about is what it was like to wake up last saturday morning. but i can't.

(i read somewhere recently where a grieving person was explaining that, in many ways, the first year is not the hardest after all.)

the other day, as i awoke slowly in a leisurely-saturday-ish way, i thought, "eliza is dead and i cannot breathe." that thought, that feeling--the certainty of both of those statements--is what i want to write about tonight. but i can't. because here's the thing (i often think i should rename this blog that: "here's the thing")--here's the thing: if you yourself know the grief that i do (and i know there are a few of you who are reading this who do), then i don't need to try to explain that certainty to you because you already know it for yourself. but if you don't know this grief of your own (and i'm so glad you don't), then i cannot describe it to you. i cannot explain how, fifteen long months after the fact, the realization that eliza is dead and the simultaneous certainty that, as a result, i cannot breathe would strike me upon awakening on an insignificant saturday morning, even as i drew breath after breath. i cannot write that for you.

which makes me think that is what this blog is often about (another re-name for this blog i ought to consider, i think: "which makes me think")--it's about writing around and around and around that which i cannot quite nail down. is that what all this writing is about? is that why i cannot go to bed without my journal and pen nearby, such that, as soon as i slow down and think quietly--listen, even, to that still small voice that i will not allow to catch me all day--is that why it is then that i suddenly have to get back up again and write? am i constantly amassing more and more writing, circling around and around that which is impossible to write simply because it is impossible? because, were it possible for me to explain why i was so certain upon awakening last saturday morning that "eliza is dead and i cannnot breathe" even as i drew breath after breath, i wouldn't need to write anymore.

but i can't, so i will.

which makes me think (there it is again) that this is part of what it means to be fallen. to know and be unable to communicate. to have and be unable to share. what did adam and eve's prelapsarian poetry sound like? with no pain to inform it, no distance from Perfection to try to bridge--what was perfect prose, perfect music like? because they must have existed there in the garden, surely. who can imagine paradise without those elements of beauty? but what did they sound like, not driven by angst or seeking or wrestling or writhing?

i can't wait to find out.

Monday, March 29, 2010

the game that's got it all:

concentration (how much does he look like sam here? wow!)...

... teamwork (and the coolest coach)...

... drama!...

...nail-biting tension (yes, now he looks like me, i know)...

...and my favorite green ghost!

saying no to ice cream and other delicious things

i swear i've learned more from being a mom than anything else i've ever done. (and yes, as for this lesson--and all the rest of them here, too--i know that i'm no doubt the millionth person to have drawn this comparison. but it's my blog, so...)

if you have a child or know one who has reached the age of rationality, of being able to communicate with intention and purpose, you have no doubt had--or at least overheard--some version of this conversation:

sweet, thoughtful, careful child: "mom, can i please have [insert ridiculous thing here, e.g. ice cream for breakfast, a dog, a sleepover at the fire station, etc]?" (n.b. dog-lover that i am, i in no way intend to imply that a dog is a ridiculous thing. ridiculous request from the backseat of the car when passing the pet store on the way home from school, though, i think we can agree.)

mother, with a chuckle: "no, honey, you may not."

incredulous child: "but i said 'please'!"

the implication in the retort: i have carefully done as you have taught me. i have asked politely. and now there is no reason i should not get what i want.

what the parent knows: the request is ridiculous/unhealthy/not good for the child in the long run/impossible/not in the parent's plan. please or no please, the child is not going to get what he has requested.

this conversation and its result is likely not a surprise to you. no good parent would let her child have ice cream for breakfast, unhealthy as it would be for him. no good parent would make the decision to get a dog without careful consideration of the effect it would have on the entire family and without conversation among the family members about whether or not it's a good idea. being a good parent, in fact, certainly requires that you say "no" to some requests that are not in the best interests of the child.

agreed? easy.

so why, then, do we not expect our Perfect Father to do the same on our behalf? "but i said please," we cry out again and again, indignant that a polite, properly submitted request could be denied. how could He possibly say "no" to this clearly-wonderful thing for which i've asked so nicely?

insert the ice-cream-for-breakfast for the clearly-wonderful-thing and you'll begin to understand.

why is it that we say no to the ice cream request? myriad reasons. it's not healthy. it won't serve the child well to start the day with sugar and nothing nutritious. it sets the child up to expect treats at odd times, which could start a bad habit. it's bad for his teeth, his healthy weight, his energy levels. you have something better--cereal or toast or eggs or pancakes--to offer. you know he'll have ice cream after dinner and want to save the treat for an appropriate time.

no matter how many sermons i hear about what it means when God says "no", i'm not sure i'll ever understand. (here's a link to a really good one, if you're curious: click on November 8, 2009.)

but whether or not i understand doesn't matter.

because, as you'll know if you've ever tried to explain the no-ice-cream-for-breakfast answer, you'll remember that the child's response is rarely thoughtful or helpful, and even more importantly, rarely matters. neither whining nor rational questioning nor debating is going to convince you that ice cream is the best thing you can give your child for breakfast. so, as you may have experienced with your own child, sometimes the best answer (as much as you detest sounding like your mother and everyone else's when you say it) is "because i said so." the child is not going to like it or understand it, but that doesn't change the fact that you know best, you love the child, and you're going to stick to what you know to be best for him. end of story.

so what are we to do with God's "no"? because certainly we are called to ask and seek and knock (matthew 7:7). but when the answer is clearly "no," we are not to whine, "but i said please! but i asked three times!"

what is it we want from our children? trust that we know what is best and cheerful obedience to what we expect.

when we whine and protest, certain that we know best and surely God has done us wrong, we do not trust in His perfect will. if we do not believe that even His "no" is in our best interest, we fail to believe that we have a Perfect Father who wants what's best for us--always. when we choose not to obey, we choose to disbelieve, even as the child who throws a tantrum when you offer cereal in place of the ice cream chooses to disrespect and disbelieve that you know what is best for him.

do you fault your child for being sad at being denied ice cream for breakfast? no. you understand--yes, that would taste delicious; and yes, it would be a special treat; and yes, it has been a long time since you've had ice cream; and yes, i wish i could have some, too; and yes, i know you feel sad. but none of that changes the answer, and none of that changes the fact that you expect the child to obey and trust that you want what's best for him and wouldn't do anything to hurt him.

said Jesus, "Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (luke 11:11-13). will heaven, then, look like ice cream for breakfast every morning? i don't think so. i like to hope that by the time i get there my will will be more in line with His and i'll be too busy understanding and desiring what's best to be thinking about ice cream at all.

(in the meantime, is it possible to teach a child to seek his parent's will? if only.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

why i love books

"I have never understood why people who can swallow the enormous improbability of a personal God boggle at a personal Devil. I have known so intimately the way that demon works in my imagination. No statement that Sarah ever made was proof against his cunning doubts, though he would usually wait till she had gone to utter them. He would prompt our quarrels long before they occurred: he was not Sarah's enemy so much as the enemy of love, and isn't that what the devil is supposed to be? I can imagine that if there existed a God who loved, the devil would be driven to destroy even the weakest, the most faulty imitation of that love. Wouldn't he be afraid that the habit of love might grow, and wouldn't he try to trap us all into being traitors, into helping him extinguish love? If there is a God who uses us and makes us his saints out of such material as we are, the devil too may have his ambitions; he may dream of training even such a person as myself, even poor Parkis, into being his saints, ready with borrowed fanaticism to destroy love wherever we find it." --Graham Greene, The End of the Affair

Sunday, March 21, 2010

couldn't resist

back to duke gardens

this time with magnolias in all their glory

(what a clever idea to make trees covered with flowers!)

and pollen, too (ah-choo!)

fun shapes

blankets of blooms

and beautiful people in tow!

Monday, March 15, 2010

of a different sort

(i found this poem accidentally as i searched for a quotation--which i did not ever find--and thought that it suited these photographs well. since sam suggests that my posts are sometimes prohibitively long, and another friend has commented that it's difficult for him to make it to the end of my sentences at times, riddled as they are with semicolons, here's a post of a different sort: brief. and with someone else's words. [you're welcome.])

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches —
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead —
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging —

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted —

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

-Mary Oliver

in the garden

it must be the time of year. i haven't thought that i saw her in a long time.

she retired the year before i became a stay-at-home mom, in plenty of time to enjoy the long life she no doubt had ahead of her. she traveled and gardened and loved on her grandchildren and seemed always to report some new delight or some new joy in her post-work life. indeed, even in her work life, she had always seemed to find delight, in spending time encouraging fledgling writer students; pouring her heart into fundraising work on behalf of female coworkers and students; or taking a lunchtime walk with an eager, young coworker (who now realizes what a gift it was to have spent that time with her). i will never forget discovering beauty with her at the butterfly house or her generous offer of a secret snooze on the loveseat in her office where no one could find me when i was pregnant and sick and exhausted. she is inextricably intertwined with my memory of september 11, 2001, which is another story entirely...

(we all have our i-remember-where-i-was-when stories, don't we? i remember hearing my parents' stories of where they were when jfk was assassinated; for my generation, these are the stories we'll tell.)

i was 23 years old, a baby, in my second year teaching students twice my age with four times my life experience. i was a youthful vigilante for good writing, determined to grace them with grammar and impart to them my joy in a carefully-crafted thesis statement or a finely-tuned outline. they were, for the most part, amused by this little yankee girl, fresh and energetic and so in love with proper syntax, so fond of thorough proofreading, so enamored of yet-another-draft. i didn't always know what i was doing--no, in fact, often had no idea what i was doing--standing in front of these students who knew so much more of the world than i: one who, with his whole family, had walked barefoot out of liberia, a political refugee; one who had given birth in a public restroom stall to a child she didn't know she was carrying; many who were working multiple jobs and single-handedly raising children and even grandchildren my age.

on september 11, 2001, during one such grammar-filled early morning class, my students took a break from their computer lab work and headed out for a drink or a snack or a smoke. as one student left, she pulled me aside and pointed out to me that one of her classmates was carrying a knife. this was a large thirty-something man, struggling to get by in school, sweet and determined and utterly danger-less; he had his hunting knife strapped to his belt, no doubt just one of many tools he considered innocuous as he carried it with him that day. it was a large knife, certainly carrying the potential for danger even if its owner wouldn't hurt a fly (so to speak), and weapons were forbidden on campus for good reason. so as the rest of the students enjoyed their five-minute break, i took this student aside, foolish baby that i was, and explained to him that he would have to leave class with the knife. he was confused, upset--he needed so badly to be in the class, eager struggler that he was--but i urged him to get rid of the knife and meet me in my office after class so i could explain further and catch him up on what he missed. i learned later that i should have called security and had him escorted off campus, but i'm glad i didn't. he was so sweet and so utterly not guilty of anything but naievete.

but i was shaken by the experience, yankee baby that i was, having never even seen a hunting knife like that, much less confronted an understandably-frustrated and armed, as it were, student.

it was near 9:00 when the rest of the class returned with stories heard in the halls, some of a plane crash, some of a building collapse in new york. to them as to everyone else south of the mason-dixon line, as i have learned, new york is new york is new york: never mind that i grew up five hours by car north of the city: it must be my very own neighborhood. knowing nothing of the magnitude of the snippets of the story they were reporting and still quite literally trembling from the encounter with the student with the knife, i directed them back to their work.

after class ended around 10:00, i rushed back to my office to meet the knife-carrying student, fully expecting to find my immediate supervisor in her office next door and to ask her to meet with this student with me. but before i made it to my office, i found the conference room door open (it never was) and the large screen television blaring. i couldn't resist peeking in to see what was going on. of course, the images on the screen were of the tragedy we all know simply as 9/11. and i found her there, watching. breathlessly, still unclear as to what i was seeing, i asked her (my supervisor's supervisor, she was) to come with me to meet with the student. she explained to me briefly how the world had changed even as i had been engrossed in my little developmental writing world that morning but then quickly accompanied me to my office. i remember little of our conversation with the student, anticlimactic as the episode turned out to be, even though just an hour earlier it had felt earth-shattering. i do remember her explaining as simply as possible to the poor man what had happened in new york and how his carrying a knife (he still was) on campus at that moment in history was particularly threatening. he was unable to understand why she had to call security to escort him off campus, perhaps even to drive him home, i think, as he was accustomed to riding the city bus. i remember her calmness, her gentleness with the poor man who would never understand why his carrying a tool could cause such a stir. she was firm but gentle, confident in what needed doing even as she was understanding of the student's inability to comprehend. and she modeled for me compassionate leadership, good parenting, mercy and grace, stern discipline, and appropriate communication all in that moment.

all of which--that story, and all my memories of her--is to say nothing of her service to her church and community, not to mention her writing. she was, in so many ways, and encouragement, an inspiration, and a delight to me and everyone she met.

after i left work for my own new adventure in the fall of 2003, spending much of my time searching out new stroller-friendly distractions, i found myself seeing her regularly if infrequently at duke gardens. we would laugh when we'd run into each other there, both remarking what a while it had been since we'd been there and what a lovely coincidence to find each other there again. we would catch up, she sharing her latest adventures, i sharing news-less news of life at home with baby luke.

she always wore delicious jewel tones, which accented her stylishly cropped white hair so well, that hair that held the spot that would be her calling Home so much sooner than anyone ever could have imagined. it was jewel-tone-dressed white-haired women walking the garden last week that made me think--twice in as many hours--that i saw her there.

bonnie gray vick stone died on april 29, 2008, almost two years ago. that spring, her last, i didn't see her in the gardens anymore. she was home, sick and dying, even as the world was being reborn yet again. so i went to duke gardens--this time with baby eliza in the stroller--and took pictures, went to the azalea gardens and tried to capture what she should have seen, and sent her those fresh sights by mail instead, along with words describing the smells and colors she knew so well. she wrote back with thanks, sharing her joy even in the midst of her suffering, and we both delighted in the opportunity to exchange real letters in this modern world of electronic communication.

i was at the gardens again this spring, stroller-less now, taking pictures of flowers again, when i repeatedly thought i saw her. this is the place she inhabits in my memory: not her sunny corner office; not her cozy, book-lined house; not her church or her murder vigils or any of her other places. it's in the garden where she belongs, jewel-toned clothing complementing the spring-tones of rebirth. "God Almighty first planted a Garden; and indeed, it is the purest of human pleasures," declared sir francis bacon, words immortalized on the sundial in the very garden where i found her so often in her life and now find her in my memory.

the purest of human pleasures. i am so glad to have delighted in the same with her and to have again another spring in which to find her memory here. i am so glad for the reminder, even as the earth is reborn, that her rebirth is eternal and sure and Good.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

how to

eat an apple

after a long, hard bike ride

when you are missing a top front tooth.

(isn't he cute?)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

coming soon to a garden near you

(an open letter)

dear yankee family and friends,

still buried under snow

and beginning to wonder

if it will ever come,

i am witness:

it is here

just barely

just beginning

just bursting

making its way up the east coast

to you.

and it is Good.
with sunny southern love,

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


(shoot. i'm quite sure i blogged about fearing forgetfulness once upon a time...but, having forgotten what not-quite-descriptive-enough title i gave that post--yes, i recognize the irony in that--i can't seem to find that post to refer you back to it here. oh well. does anyone ever go back and read the posts i refer to anyhow? hoping you'll excuse me this time if you usually do. or if your memory is better than mine, that you'll point me to that post, please.)

before eliza died, i had no idea how strong the urge to cling to memories could be. i remember not long after she died describing to a friend the panicky feeling that came over me as i began to forget formula-mixing ratios. i was terrified when i realized her smell no longer lingered in my nostrils, heartbroken the first time 10pm passed without my thinking it was time for her meds. one wouldn't think that medication doses would be something a person would be eager to remember; i certainly wouldn't have thought so. but when so much of a person's life was about medication doses, forgetting that means letting just a little bit of that person's life slip away. the scariest thought of all, though, was that as those little bits slipped away--so quickly! just months after she died--there was no getting them back. and if the medication doses i had measured for years, had burned into my brain to recite to so many doctors and pharmacists could slip away so easily, what would i forget over the next months, not to mention years and decades? i felt like i was frantically grasping, clawing, fighting to remember every little detail, even as i could feel those things slipping from my grasp.

i thought that was the most terrifying thing.

but then, about a week ago, luke's teacher's dog--whom he loves, although i must admit that fact doesn't make this particular dog all that special, as the boy has never ever met a dog he doesn't love (wonder where he got that?)--had a seizure. over dinner, i shared that news with him. "what's a seizure, mom?"

i was stunned.

"you know, a seizure. like what eliza used to have."

in case you aren't a follower of eliza's story (does any such reader exist here?), i need to let you know that intractable seizures were eliza's main ailment. she had dozens (hundreds?) daily, which could not be controlled by any medication. luke not only knew what they were, but he relished his job as eliza's backseat companion in the car: he was in charge of letting me know when eliza was seizing and whether she looked like she would vomit or not (which she often did) so i would know whether i needed to pull over to clean her off or help clear her airway. he was an excellent seizure-monitor.

i was sure he had just misheard me, misunderstood the word. "you know, a seizure."


"you must remember! when her brain would do strange things and she would make noises and move in strange ways and sometimes throw up?"

"oh, yeah. i remember she used to throw up."

i was stunned. we worked very hard to make sure that luke understood as well as he could what was going on with his sister throughout her life. we didn't want there to be any kind of mystery about her illness and so made sure that he understood, for example, that eliza's vomiting was very different from when he had the stomach flu, that eliza was "sick" in a very different way from any way he would ever be sick, that her brain didn't work the same way his did...and on and on and on. he knows all about seizures and all of eliza's other ailments and ultimately why she died...or at least he knew all about them.

i thought my forgetting was the most terrifying thing. but i had no idea.

And at the end, that now we must learn to live as faithfully and authentically with Eric gone as we had tried to do with Eric present.
How do we do that? And what does it mean? It will take a long time to learn.
It means not forgetting him. It means speaking of him. It means remembering him. Remembering: one of the profoundest features of the Christian and Jewish way of being-in-the-world and being-in-history is remembering. 'Remember,' 'do not forget,' 'do this as a remembrance.' We are to hold the past in remembrance and not let it slide away. For in history we find God.
If Eric's life was a gift, surely then we are to hold it in remembrance--to resist amnesia, to renounce oblivion. --Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son

a friend tells me that i should be grateful that luke doesn't remember this unfortunate fact about eliza's life, that i should be glad that suffering is erased from his memory. but it's impossible for me to be glad that he has--already!--forgotten something so essential to who she was. sure, it was not something good about who she was, but it was true and very present all the same; it was her daily reality, and his daily reality with her. i am in no way, as it turns out, concerned with remembering only the good things, and it turns out, too, that i don't want that for luke, either.

which is why luke's forgetting--and not even realizing he has forgotten--is perhaps even more frightening than my own. and he has decades more than i do, God willing, to forget even more without ever knowing it.