Friday’s Poem: Once, Michigan

The visiting lovers have left the long shores,

carrying sweetness in palms of their hands,

promises of return wrapped about them

in a bright scarf of loose knots,

memories planted in their hearts.

Their words are conspiratorial whispers

as they look back, then move toward ordinary life.

Birds are flocking, straying less often;

once the berries are over they will go, too.

The leaves have begun to rattle, pine needles to flee and fall.

The air is spiked with foretelling scents.

Sitting cross-legged in fields

no longer summered green, my sight

fills with that rocky shore, fresh water

churning chilled depths that will turn

my fingers blue if I linger until first snow.

But here is true north, a lifetime from

mountains where I now live, and farther from the sea.

In September light, jewel blue and amber,

the world is seasoned and richer.

My hair whips about, shrouds my eyes.

I know that leaves still cascade

down my shoulders, grazing my face,

but those constant waves raking the stones–

that once stayed my cries,

called forth my singing–

and those steadfast trees afire in northern palettes–

these will follow me into the rain-laced nights

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Check One- Spiritual? Religious?

The question for me is: can we not choose both? I can and do, but often in our roiling, defensive, divisive social milieu, it can seem wiser to keep it all to myself.

Not only these days but, honestly, as long as I have been here we’ve been offered a plethora of options for personal belief, endless pegs on which to hang our hats at doorways into various faith systems. “Step right this way!” It can be brain-stunning, considering the bombardment of ads, social media platforms and random videos. Some revolve around specific diets; some require certain forms and lengths of meditation or prayer; some involve lifestyle changes, such as leaving modern technology and possessions behind; still others insist on engagement just within that proscribed community; and often the center of it all is an allegiance to a religious–or spiritual- leader. They may ask of practitioners certain ritualistic behaviors that may be forbidden to “outside” persons.

Though there are often several cross-over elements to faiths and practices–an aspiration to enlightenment, whatever that is for the group; a belief in the wisdom of the earth; a commitment to times of ascetic, solitary devotion to core beliefs–there are also clear divides. I bump into some of these out in the world: a unique dress code followed; jewelry worn to identify a wearer as a follower of that faith; tomes read that are reflective of one’s serious study of that belief and none other; café discussions that devolve before long into arguments. And the various posters hawking this natural lifestyle or that set of soul-and-body-purifying methods, or meetings to instruct one of an avenue less travelled. They all state they lead to “a well being of wholeness.” And maybe we are a bit more fragmented in 2021…so some might be tantalizing, while others seem absurd. A few beliefs are popular in our culture; some are decidedly not. And how far can a philosophy venture before it is considered a “fringe” movement? There is room for everything out there.

Or is there? It likely depends on where you live and who you are. I can’t say being Christian is easy on the Northwest. Then again, I had not thought of it much one way or another–then it turns out not everyone tolerates other peoples’ faith affiliations… Who knew the liberal West could be that judgmental? I am a left of center sort of person but, then, there are just lots of rumors out there about what my faith means and what it does not. No one asks for my ideas or experience. I want to be nonjudgmental of the naysayers. But hope for more respectful and open discussion. As recall it really was more likely decades ago.

The one thing many people contend is that religious principles and beliefs are in opposition to spiritual ones. Distant from one another, not at all the same. Choose one or the other–but the two do not mix. Or so we are encouraged to think. Here are the first three definitions from Merriman-Webster says:

Definition of spiritual, adjective:

1: of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spiritINCORPOREAL spiritual needs

2a: of or relating to sacred matters spiritual songs

b: ecclesiastical rather than lay or temporal

spiritual authority, lords spiritual

3: concerned with religious values

Yet they remain separate to lots of people despite there being an overlap that is significant. Religion generally gets a side or back seat, if any seat, at a proverbial round table talk. Additionally, we learn early the two topics that are most incendiary are politics and religion. Humans wage wars over both–at great length and to great losses. Maybe that is why some are loathe to address actual religion. We too often tiptoe about it–that is, unless we are moved to speak up loudly/protest/rally in the name of whatever we hold dear. I grew up in the 60s so know about protesting. But when it comes to my faith, I do not unleash a humungous voice, usually. In fact I am very often quiet in most arenas. And I don’t like the sense that there is less and less choice for being able to share, to talk, to discuss openly– without penalty.

When did t his shift happen…? Over a lifetime I have sat around many tables, energetically engaged in debate that have led to insights with deeper understanding. A welcoming energy has been noticeable as ideas were bandied about. Bridges were constructed. Even with topics religious and political. Yes, there can be conflict and words one wanted to retrieve at the end of it all. But it wasn’t an exercise in disrespect or worse, cruelty.

More recently I have become more habituated to being quiet about things of the spirit unless I think present company will tolerate, perhaps enjoy, such conversation. Sometimes it is hard. My life is imbued with what matters most to me. As it is for most people–even if we are not conscious of it. We grow into such things and they accompany us on life journeys, shaped and reshaped, changed or replaced as we go. And one’s philosophy or faith is the same.

If I was still a serious seeker, perhaps looking for a religion, I would likely be overwhelmed. I tend to delve in, immerse myself in ideas–the nitty gritty. Because of that characteristic, I looked into various religions as youth and young adult–as young people are apt to do. Besides, I had had multiple experiences that didn’t necessarily cohere with what I had learned of the Protestant traditional ways of faith. Long before adolescence, I had a sense of deeply holy presence in my life, and divinity alive in complex realms of nature as well as human beings. I had difficulty finding words for this as a child and teenager but it seemed endemic to all natural-made life, and it reached far greater than the world beyond mine. And before I even knew what well-honed intuition and “extra sensory perception” meant, I was familiar with it within me. It never seemed unusual or extra anything. For one thing, my mother had it and used it without explanation or fanfare. In fact, it seemed almost a family thing. So–traditional church, spirituality, sacredness, intuition, everyday applications of belief and faith…it was all wrapped up together.

Raised in the First United Methodist Church by parents who left their childhood Southern Baptist and Church of Christ affiliations, respectively, when they moved north from Missouri, I was more or less at ease. (I later realized how radical a thing they did according to their Southern/Midwest culture.) I was shown that Christianity’s hallmark beliefs are based on Jesus Christ’s teachings: of love of God, others and one’s self; mercy; forgiveness; a deep commitment to supporting human progress–for the betterment of one and all; and personal accountability and authenticity. It made basic sense to me in my childish understanding and later, as I transitioned into adulthood. I learned more as I went, but these stuck with me even when it didn’t always add up to the reality of my life.

It was a moderate sized church community in a smaller city, housed in a building that Alden B. Dow had designed; it was lovely moving through it, gazing out beautiful windows. And what I heard was what I experienced. People were congenial but much more–considerate, quick to help others in need (not just at church), generous-minded, gentle mannered but strong in the face of tragedy. I went to Sunday school each Sunday morning, then joined the family in the sanctuary. I attended church camp many summers–fun with others and nature; participated in events at Christmas and Easter; and was confirmed in the faith at 12. My father oversaw the music; my family sang or contributed instrumentally–a favorite part of services was robustly singing hymns from pews or in the choir loft.

As I moved into teen-dom I was, for a time, in a Methodist Youth Fellowship; we were active in the community helping others. But I began to diverge from known entities and ways as I grappled with trauma, increasing drug use over the next several years as I tried to cope. Yet I was not one to ignore the implacable sense of God here, there, everywhere. I wrestled with often obscure but profound meanings of existence, the greater purpose of living. I drew closer to nature’s mysteries and lessons and sought out ancient Celtic ways (some of which still resonate with me). I read books on philosophy and world religions. I sought out magazine articles of other cultures’ spiritual practices. I became interested in shamanism and poured over Kierkegaard and CS Lewis and marveled at their different views. Then Joseph Campbell’s writings on classical mythology, Native American beliefs, Christian saints and arcane writings, Buddhism and meditation, white witchcraft and paganism, Subud, Bahai, parapsychology, the uses of graphology and astrology–well, the list went on for years…Some of this seeped into me as surely as Christianity. I sorted and tossed as I began to embrace enlarged viewpoints.

Did all this worry my parents? There weren’t arguments, but there was voiced concern. They felt I was far too serious, even somber for a teen-ager; so did many of my classmates. In time, I found more friends–those in the arts, those who loved to exchange ideas. Many of us became hippies, playing folk music, aligning ourselves with natural ways and means of living. But with the advent of the anti-establishment movement we became more politically engaged. That opened up a whole other vista. Religion could pose as nearly anything, it seemed; doctrine could have many facets and faces. But not all were Christian, of course. We were busy trying to be “free spirits.”

Heady times, dangerous times, passionate days and nights and beliefs to explore and dreams and justice to fight for. I became involved with Students for a Democratic Society for three years. By then, my parents were very concerned; no doubt their prayers were more fervent for my well being; we became estranged at times. I had begun to forge my own path out of childhood and their home. By 16 I had essentially left; by 18 I had literally moved on. Many ups and downs taught me to fight my own battles, alone or with other young adults.

Except that I still believed in God. Nothing was capable of shaking that up much or for long. I might have felt alone, been literally abandoned. But I knew I wasn’t, truly. And through it all, I felt and remained Christian.

Looking back, I have no complaint about being raised in that Methodist church. I left it awhile and returned to it, have off and on attended other Methodist churches wherever I have lived as well as others. For some time it all seemed bland, too moderate for me, but that also spoke to my tumult and hunger for different experiences. I was looking for greater passion to put to use in life, more effective activism in society– and a truer response to God’s ubiquitous presence.

By my early twenties it hit me that my faith could be as strong or weak as I intended it to be. That it changed as I grew up, went on. And that it didn’t require me to attend a church, though that was good, too, if it benefitted me and, later, my family. But the priority was that I live it, daily walk it– not just talk it. I intended to try always to adhere to the chosen tenets to the best of my capability, not get messy and slack off because it was challenging at times to believe, even harder to act on them. And it mattered that I continue making my sacred relationship with God my first priority. And take to heart Jesus’ teachings which were rooted in love’s wisdom and shaped by extraordinary courage in his own vexing, turbulent times–and yet serve scores in an often tragic, angry world.

Have I been able to follow through? I have made errors in my life, some grave and damaging ones. I have failed my own expectations, yet I keep on with it. Nothing destroys my belief in the revolutionary compassion shared and taught by Jesus, his radical acts of love flowing from the eternal, powerful knowledge and grace of the ever creative, universal God. And every day I am brought closer to the certainty that nature compels us because it reflects God’s intricate and astounding work in this world and those beyond–and that it is a gift to us, to learn and cherish.

Can I even talk about this in public? I just did.

Do I have to check one box or the other? Already have checked both.

Can I try to understand other faiths, respect other kinds of believers? I can. Somehow I also believe we are all entwined in the ultimate sense.

Is it likely we become more committed to beliefs by being taught from the beginning their value? But then by way or trial and error, recurrent discouragement and hope, human fear and spiritual-religious transformation, the resilience of our souls?

Yes, and more than that, God never moves apart from us. What our earthly eyes see is only part of this story. We need to better see with our spirits. May I live and move within God’s welcoming presence and vast designs of life, now and always.

Blessings to all who seek God, and may the seeking bring more unity and charity.

Monday’s Meander: Leach Botanical Garden

The lovely Leach Botanical Garden covers 9 acres in SE Portland and was for a long while owned by descendants of pioneers. John Leach, a pharmacist and his wife, Lilla, a science teacher and amateur botanist, who developed the acreage. I last attended a wedding there a two f decades ago when we all enjoyed a smaller, more rustic garden. It has since been redesigned to better showcase the land’s offerings. Marc and I recently spent a beautiful morning with the twins and their parents exploring. It is a family friendly garden (be aware masks are required for all but the youngest). A new feature is sculptural wood benches, some of which were tried out by the toddlers–climbing and sliding down them!

A spacious pavilion opens to a pleasant area with a fire pit area and an elevated walkway set among the towering trees, where the grandkids had snacks. Note the walkway behind which the toddlers enjoyed running across.

Moving on, the path took us down to the comfortable “manor house”, permanent residence of the Leach family until 1980. There is also a quaint cottage on the other side of the courtyard and, further on, a stone cottage the Leaches originally lived in during summers as their manor house was being built. The courtyard emphasizes a fairy tale feel to the property.

Of course, I would take the cottage without a second thought…a perfect spot for writing and Marc fit me right into the scene. The twins enjoyed a small pool in the courtyard.

One can understand why weddings and receptions are popular here!

We continued down the steps and paths to a river walkway, where we spotted the sturdy, cozy-looking stone cottage. I had hoped to explore inside but all buildings are closed due to Covid-19.

It was a beautiful morning, and we reluctantly took our leave–we will return soon!

Friday’s Poem: Sing, Darkness, Bring the Fall

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In the old neighborhood while autumn crept into

the fading simmer of summer, I awaited chirps.

Crickets were soon found among houses

that carried history in their seams, and

behind tree giants that rose above all.

A walk into saturated dark, which can

flash glimpses of life behind beaming windows,

was a puzzle of hide and seek sounds.

I traced their repeat to unseen stages as

evening became a chorale thick with

a divine sense of composition,

that tranquil pulsing like stars.

I stood, eyes closed to capture

a thrill of insect song offered in unison,

their interweaving of meters and tones.

Year after year I followed their chirrups,

seeking the most distant, jaywalking

toward sentinel bushes lining lawns,

cocking my ear in alleys with underbrush.

Holding my breath.

*

They have come again as leaves are crumpling,

berry-reddening and tarnishing to brassy hues.

But here on the small mountain it is a different event,

the gathering and listening easy–not better or worse.

Now I need go nowhere, just slip out my balcony door.

Steep land below cradles them in ivy,

pine needles, grasses, wind sheared branches.

They begin at once, for we who have

long waited and those who have not.

With invisible constancy, crickets never forget,

do not disappoint.

And later, in the dense, torn nights in my bed,

their universal call and response carries on,

as if an angelic force behind the scenes

holds fast to everything, each voice kept true.

And keeps me in place, rooted in calm.

I feel that humming in heart and bones;

it removes the world from my rest,

and me from my troubles.

***********************************

Below is my reading of the poem, if you wish to hear it shared aloud.

Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: A Fine Crepuscular Life

(Nightjar flight in early eve)

Ian sat on his perch in frail light, watching it leak from the yard into the linear space separating this world from another. It was a habit developed the past year, after everything changed, when he began to work in the dark, tiny anteroom of the cottage. It got claustrophobic, but it served the purpose. He’d made and set up a simple desk and tidy bookshelf; the room’s one window opened to the garden so that bees or a dragonfly and winged beetles and occasionally a bird flew to and fro through the screen-less opening. The window was stuck open through warm weather; he had to muscle it shut as fall arrived. He always liked the company of nature. He was happy to glance up, see vegetables and flowers as he worked at his computer. But he got outside whenever he could.

He sat on the weather beaten bench with its cushion of mosses, small cracks in its grain snagging him with a splinter now and again. It had been set upon Jupiter Hill, one that overlooked a small canyon fifty years earlier when the cottage was built. In the deep valley below glowed hundreds of bright pinpricks of subdivision houses. The place from which he escaped three years ago when Frieda and he split up. It was the best thing for them. She travelled on, the spacious brick house she’d bought before him a mere change station for her modelling career. He quickly purchased the falling down cottage. Made it more habitable the first year, stopped renovation the second year as he liked it rustic. And then the virus invaded all and he worked at home and was glad of it. It was cramped and aged and good enough for him.

“Good enough for a hermit,” Freida said in her arch way when she visited just once, words clanging in the rooms that he quickly showed her.

As was usually the case. One reason they could not sustain peace. She was a fighter; Ian was… not a fighter, exactly. He was, perhaps, leaning toward becoming a spiritual warrior. He didn’t feel he had a choice in the matter, just as she didn’t feel she had a choice in her ways. It was fireworks; once done, they were spent. Besides, it was true that Ian was drawn to the energy of very early morning and early evening.

“Like a vampire or werewolf?” Frieda teased. This thought excited her. It was an erroneous idea in general and patently ridiculous when she tried to connect it to Ian. But she had a genuine all-night sort of spirit.

He found himself feeling more at ease certain periods of time, too. Just as Freida found herself awake all night, sleeping much of the day; she moved at near-warp speed when the sun went down. And not given to contemplation, she stated made things happen, chiding him on his ability to sit still.

He once told her to settle things, “Yes, crepuscular, vespertine. Matinal, too. You know this about me, I am drawn to in-between things– times, ideas.”

He spoke while avoiding her cat-like eyes, amber gemstones set in tawny skin that spoke volumes–he just wasn’t sure exactly what they were saying. She was so tall and lithe that he expected her to leap across space rather than walk, and to land on him. All that was a reason he fell for her–as likely for so many who met her. And the curious woman behind them got hold of him. The intensity and intelligence lurking behind strange beauty. For a long time it kept him there; they were opposites that sparked.

She shrugged at his scientific explanation. “Such a technical person. All that isn’t the solution to our conflicts. I defend my own lifestyle by saying I’m nocturnal but so what? We still have to make it work in our shared reality. If we have love left.”

What did that mean, Ian wondered? They lived in conflicted realities, almost parallel, and it had become taxing. Love was by then a wrong perception, though he wished her no ill will. So not long after that conversation, he found the cottage. They bid one another good bye and fare well with very little rancor. He later wondered what she was up to after the pandemic hit but there was no urge to contact her. It had been an experience; he didn’t regret it or his leaving.

But this felt right, this cottage life, sitting here on Jupiter Hill. Away from much of what he felt was false for him. Away from the hard push and pull of things. Below the hill was a life he did not understand, even when he inhabited it for all those years. Here was a pensive watchfulness with the rhythm of nature, and he felt most as ease in an unfolding of dusk, the rhapsody of sunset putting on the cool elegance of fleeting blue hour, and the coming forth of stars in great violet-black skies. Creation demonstrating its theater of mystery and magic.

He sat very still, still as a rabbit outwitting a predator. He learned to spot elusive nightjars, owls, watched flurries of bats, and savored deer grazing at edge of the neighboring woods. Coyotes appeared, stared at him, slunk off on fast feet. He had a great fondness of birds ever since he’d dreamed of flying as a child. Once he felt certain there was a bear or a cougar rooting about at the edge of he woods and he stayed rooted, a jolt of excitement rushing through him. All creatures were welcome, as they had welcomed him. Even if a bit unlikely the possibility stayed with him, a promise of great things to come if he remained patient. Open.

Ian was in his element, no longer lonely. The solitary state was perfect–a relief. He raised his whiskery beard-adorned chin to the sky, breathed the green-laden air, closed his eyes in gratitude. Heard whirr and rush of wings overhead. Drifted.

******

There came the day when summer began to fade fast. Ian now kept a sweater on the back of his leather chair for cooler days. One afternoon he looked up from his computer. A twirling brown maple leaf had caught his attention. The another and another. He had noticed small groupings scattered on the yard recently, but had been too busy working to think on it. An architect, he’d been developing plans for a community of micro housing, a new contract with the city. As wind stirred chilly-edged air he realized it was time to add to the woodpile. His woodstove required constant feeding– though the cottage had only two narrow bedrooms, a tucked away bathroom and open living area with modest kitchen. It was an old place that creaked and moaned in winter as it hummed with warmth.

In the bottom right hand desk drawer, which he avoided opening more than once more, was an oversized postcard with a view of San Diego’s bright waterfront. He’d received it from Freida earlier in the day. She had been in the balmy city for six months fulfilling several good jobs, but work had dried up and it was not looking good. Ands she hoped he was doing well on on the hill and was content. She had signed it with her stylized cat motif and flourish of her name, underscored twice. As if he had forgotten her entirely.

Ian had been puzzled at first. They hadn’t communicated in two years; he hadn’t followed her on social media. He enjoyed such basic happiness it never occurred to him that she might return to sniff about the perimeter of his life. But, then, she was becoming financially unstable. Or perhaps unstable, in general, as happened when practical matters pressed too hard upon her. He didn’t want to expect the worst; life was hard for many these days.

But he pushed the good recollections of their old life aside. Ian finally had what he wanted, or most of it.

******

He wrapped up work later than planned, then made a salad topped with smoked salmon. He settled at his bench and ate with pleasure until satiated. The wind picked up. It carried the tantalizing scent of chilled rain, though it had been a long period of drought and few believed the great rains of the past would return soon. Ian enjoyed warmth of summer but his true nature was stirred by onset of autumn and winter. That long softening greyness, cloudiness creating barest shadow that easily sifted warmer light into a twilit time. And he longed for rain; his pores felt its absence, his skin tight and textured as parchment.

He took in the ribbons of luminosity rushing over hills and valley, melded into dimmer translucent rays, that distant horizon leeching color from autumn’s brilliant dome of blue. The sun had about left. His heart raced, breath became shallower. Time was suspended, as was he. Ian stood as the late September light transformed the body of land and the air blued; his eyes narrowed to focus on changing sky, saw moths flitting about, birds on sudden wing. He longed to be there, felt the magnitude of their labors and choreography of flight. He stood taller, reached up and up with hands to the infinite expanse.

Behind him there was a shock to the atmosphere when a low growl, insistent and pure went deep. He spun around to behold her, body lithe and streamlined, eyes afire in a rapid descent of evening as it began to cling to all life.

Freida, ready to pounce, black hair aloft behind her in the gusty night, arms lifting, her feet set to send her vaulting toward him. Her aim, her desire clear in the way she was. He felt the power of who they had been, once.

And then he turned, rose up. His feet left the good earth, he was fleeing gravity as surely as sunlight fled the end of day. His body lightened to a configuration of feathers, his eyes sharp as never before, and he felt the strong lift of the changing air currents. The baritone hoot of a barred owl floated near and vibrated in his cocked ears; the clear, stuttering call of the nightjar lulled and pierced as it passed, one eye on the man who would be bird, its powerful wing grazing his shoulder as it ascended in a twilit flash.

Ian followed, rid of all disbelief or fear–while below, Freida raced to the edge of Jupiter Hill, jumped higher than thinkable with a disgruntled cry. But her strong effort failed; she was gone, no more to be seen. And Ian flew on, the world below a whirl of troubles and triumphs. He might fall to ground as befitted common man, but he was certain he was on the verge of living as he had always imagined. He could fly between this and that, here and there. His own fine zone. And would be routed to new ones, passing through thin places, into greater wisdom. He was hovering on the cusp of creative abundance with the elusive nightjar at his side, was he not? For the time being, he was wholly free.