Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

When Death Comes | Mary Oliver

Death is on my mind. Not just because we’re in the season of Lent, but because it’s impossible to escape death. Here’s Mary Oliver’s take on death. My brief comments follow.

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

© 1992 by Mary Oliver, published by Beacon Press
From New and Selected Poems, Volume One (pub. 1992), pp. 10-11

It’s impossible to get through Lent without pondering death. Not just the death of Jesus of Nazareth, but my own death. How do I prepare to die?

Writing about death helps. So does revisiting deaths of family members and friends. Also, acknowledging holes in my life that will never be filled. And my own fear of dying before I think I’m ready.

So what does it mean to live each day as potentially my last day on this earth? Mary suggests I pay attention to the now of this world. Become more than a visitor. Become amazed at this world and its inhabitants. Especially those flowers of the field that have put up with the likes of us from the very beginning.

As for going through what Mary calls the “the door” of death, yes, I’m curious. Though not as curious as Mary. Still, the focus is today, the only way to prepare for tomorrow.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 25 February 2021
Image found at wwwreligionlac.net

Our original sin yet again

I wonder…
Does each nation
Each country
Have an original sin
The seed of its
Particular ignominy
Running through veins
Shot full of raging
Hormones escalating
Into tragedies
Of historic proportions
Played out in
Unnumbered permutations
Of seduction and flattery
Designed to deceive
And subdue?

It isn’t just the daily revelation of predatory behavior by public figures and officials. It’s the reality that various permutations of predatory behavior undergird the earliest foundations of our nation.

I’d describe it this way: The subduing and disappearing of some in order to pursue the welfare of a select group that viewed and still view themselves as more entitled than others.

Layer upon layer. Decade after decade. And now we’ve come to this juncture in our history without a clear understanding of how we got here, and how many were and still are subdued and disappeared. Buried beneath mountains of inspiring proclamations, and promises not kept.

I first wrote this in November 2017. Here we are, well over three years later. Damage to our nation has sky-rocketed, and disparities have intensified. This time aided and abetted by many white churches looking for an earthly savior who will do their bidding.

No matter who is in the White House, we can’t expect miracles. This long-term unfinished business still haunts us singly and together. Especially in our churches and in our neighborhoods. Are we up to the task?
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 29 November 2017; updated and reposted 23 February 2021
Photo of Great Dismal Swamp found at smithsonianmag.com
The swamp, located in Virginia and North Carolina, once served as a refuge for Native Americans and fugitive slaves.

Life shrinks daily | Lent 2021

Is it not enough
That I have survived?
That You have never
Turned away from me?

Life shrinks daily
A wrenching letting go
Of many things

Masks and pandemic protocols
Shroud me in a deathlike dream
From which I cannot wake
Before the next stanza
Takes me down

The sun is out today, though the air is still below freezing. White mounds of snow look like small mountain tops invading the back yard. The birds are basking in chilly sun, taking their turns at the birdfeeder.

I sit in my kitchen, an onlooker to life, wondering how and when things went sour.

Then again, this is the first Sunday in Lent. My heart tells me it’s time review what I’m giving up yet again for Lent. No, it hasn’t gotten any easier to say this prayer. Especially the last line.

I let go my desire for security and survival.
I let go my desire for esteem and affection.
I let go my desire for power and control.
I let go my desire to change the situation.

Quoted by Cynthia Bourgeault in Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, p. 147 (Cowley Publications 2004)

I wonder what Jesus of Nazareth felt and thought as he approached his coming death?

Praying for an accepting heart and a grateful spirit.
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 21 February 2021
Image found on Facebook via Google search

Coming up for air

 

Coming up for air
Weary mind and body
Conspire

Catching me off guard
They try changing the subject
Of my latest thought

Which to be sure
I cannot remember in full
Now lost in my dreams

Clouds outside hang heavy
With bits of sleet and weary snow
Frozen and mushy

Like my brain melting
And freezing again drifting
on Shumann’s Träumerei

I’m a bit weary and giddy today. Last night we sent off the (hopefully) last version of my small book of poetry: Without a Flight Plan.

Do I need to publish a book? No. Do I want to? Yes, even though I’ve already said I’m not going to write another book.

So…What happened? 2020 happened. Covid-19. Trump. Black Lives Matter. Social Distancing. And a whole lot more. In addition, my dearly beloved husband suggested last November that I put together a book of my poetry for family members. He also offered to get it ready for printing.

My first response? No way! However, on second thought, last year was one of the most bizarre years of my life. So I decided to let some of last year’s poems speak for themselves (without commentary), along with some favorite Longwood Gardens photos taken by D.

So yes, I’m weary of proofreading. However, I’m excited about having a book this close to becoming real. Especially at this time in my life.

Thanks for stopping by today.
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 19 February 2021
Thanks to YouTube for the video at the top.

thick roots revisited

P1040831

thick roots tangled knots
barely hanging onto bank
drink deep waters

The last several days have been unpredictable and sometimes discouraging. I keep reminding myself that I’m not in charge of things. The news these days isn’t great. Even so, every day offers an opportunity to look up, look back, look ahead, and take another step. I wrote the following comments in April 2017.  

 ~~~

This haiku was my third post to this blog, published on 3 January 2014. It still haunts me, though not in the same way.

I first saw these roots when D and I were walking with our daughter and her husband through Hoyt Arboretum in Portland, Oregon. I couldn’t tear my eyes away. The tangled roots were beautiful and foreboding.

It was a bit like blogging, which I’ve experienced as a formidable venture into unknown territory. Like being born and surviving. Sometimes against all odds.

Writing lets my exposed roots show, often whether I realize they’re showing or not. Writing also stakes my claim to a tiny, precarious plot of land that sits open, vulnerable and visible to passersby.

I’ve traveled a long way since my early posts, yet my roots are still my roots. Bare, and barely hanging onto precious ground that’s stronger, deeper, and more nourishing than I could have imagined.

Deep waters aren’t visible, and they don’t untangle all the knots in my life. Sometimes I wonder whether they’re drying up.

Yet even in dire circumstances, I discover more than enough to get me through each day. Sometimes with tears of sorrow and disbelief. More often with joy and sheer gratitude for the privilege of being human. Able to thrive in the forest next to redwood giants, with miniscule ferns growing around and from my feet.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 26 April 2017, and 16 February 2021
Photo credit: DAFraser, October 2012, Hoyt Arboretum, Portland, Oregon

Sometimes I want to give up

I want to turn into a bird and
join the community at the birdfeeder
A sometimes raucous group and yet
they manage to fly in and out
without mayhem or madness
taking them down bird by bird

This little poem was in the middle of a long list of things bothering me yesterday.  They included personal health issues, life with our dear cat Smudge who vomits every now and then, the mess that passes as my desk, and our national mayhem and madness.

Early yesterday morning I was watching birds at the feeders outside our kitchen window. Even though it was freezing cold with ice and snow on the ground, I suddenly got all teary. I wanted to be a bird! Free to come and go without fear.

Thankfully, a telephone conversation with a longtime friend helped get me back on track.

There’s a reason I felt like packing it in. The real problem isn’t what’s out there, or even my health challenges. It’s my voice. My writing voice. Put simply: Writing on WordPress is about as safe as it can get. Visitors don’t have to agree with me, and I have the privilege of speaking my mind.

For several years I’ve wondered about publishing some of my writing, and have said No. I’ve already published as an academic; I don’t need to publish anything else.

And yet…I wrote my two published books while I was a professor and my father was still alive. I hedged my language, thinking he might read them. They included memories about my childhood, but not about the way things really were for me at home.

Blogging gave me an opportunity to describe my childhood and youth, come to terms with them, and move on as a writer. So here I am today wondering why, with a manuscript nearly ready to publish, I’m nervous and even fearful.

Yet the truth is simple: Though I don’t write to please or appease my father, I still have a whisper of fear in me. This may sound crazy. Still, I need to do this for myself, my mother and sisters, our children and grandchildren, and women and men who have encouraged me as the writer I now am.

More later about the book. Right now I’m back to proofreading.

Happy Friday, and a prayer that we’ll find our way through these troubled days.
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 12 February 2021
Photo found at news.wisc.edu

Now read this, if you dare

Yesterday my longtime blogging friend in Australia posted a thought-provoking piece about Australia and the USA. John is now a retired history teacher, and a superb writer. His mind wanders back and forth, here and there, before coming to the end of it all. This short piece is about where our two countries find ourselves today. Read it, if you dare.

I’ll start you off with the opening paragraph, followed by a link to his piece.

Lebanon, Kansas, USA

There is a small stone pyramid about two miles northwest of Lebanon, Kansas. Lebanon has a population of something a little over two hundred people. It is on the crossroad of highway 36 and highway 281. Highway 36 runs in an almost straight line about 1400 miles or 2200 kilometres from Ohio to Colorado. In the middle, near where the town of Lebanon lies the country is flat wheat fields and looks a lot like much of Australia – small towns with few people and huge grain silos. And the highway isn’t a big highway. As in much of wheat farming Australia, the road is two lanes and narrow.

None of this is relevant but it does add to the poetry that is to come. . . .

Thanks for visiting. Yesterday’s post raised a number of questions. We like to talk about our ‘exceptionalism’ here in the USA. I’m grateful for another viewpoint from the other side of the globe.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 9 February 2021
Photo found at KansasTravel.org

Disputed and Forbidden Words

“Boundaries”—
Demolished by DT & Friends

“Truth”—
It’s all relevant, right?

“Justice”–
Just for me and mine and those who support me

“Facts”—
What I wanted to see or think I saw, or what I wrote/read on Twitter

“Incitement to Riot”—
Who, me?

We’ve arrived at DT’s second Impeachment Trial
However, it isn’t only about DT
But about every Senator casting a vote
And, most importantly, about us

How did we arrive at this moment?
It isn’t as though we couldn’t see it coming
What sickness unto death infects our nation?

Denial comes to mind

We’ve become experts at our own forms of group denial.
We go along to get along. We feel helpless.
We look the other way. We roll our eyes.
We entertain gossip instead of hanging up the phone,
turning off the TV, or leaving the room.
Or we try to explain away what just happened
as though it weren’t important.

I’m as impacted by all this as the next person. Writing about it isn’t the same as taking a stand. Though I’ll admit it helps me focus.

Bottom line: We need more than Covid-19 vaccinations. I pray there’s still time to begin telling our national truth and seeking national justice for those we’ve harmed, ignored, or belittled. Plus those to whom we’ve cozied up because they had power we thought we needed or deserved.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 8 February 2021
Photo found at ft.com

Eulogy for Sister #3 – revisited

Diane, Sister #3, is on my mind today. Diane died from ALS in February 2006. Her death was a mixed blessing. A release from imprisonment in her physical body, and a reminder that the ‘good’ life is about more than being free of catastrophic illness. Including Covid-19.

Houston, Texas – 17 February  2006

Diane directed that my remarks today be “personal, with no preachy tones.”  As I thought about what to say, I came up with only one topic that guarantees I’m being personal—that I’m not avoiding the subject Diane knows none of us can avoid when we talk about her.

Remembering Diane’s Body

Diane had a human body—loved by God
A female body:
—The body of God’s beloved daughter child
—Known to Jesus Christ as a sister for whom he died
—A female temple of God’s Holy Spirit on this earth

A one-of-a-kind body:
—Created and sustained by God
—Loved and nurtured by God’s ministering servants here on earth:
——Her husband, two sons and one daughter
——Her large, extended biological family
——Her church family
——Her nursing family
——Even the family collection of dogs

Diane’s life was shaped by bodily infirmity.
—She would hate that I just used that word!

Diane refused to think, act or behave as a person identified by an “infirmity.”
Yet the truth is simple:
—Diane’s life was shaped by loss in her left arm due to polio.

From a parental point of view, Diane’s weak arm was cause for protective measures.

From Diane’s point if view it was cause for excelling in whatever she supposedly couldn’t or shouldn’t do.

Not only would she do all these things,
She would do most of them better than any of us, things like
—Riding a bike, swimming and playing basketball
—Sewing dresses and suits
——not hankies and curtains, but fancy dresses, and suits with tailored blazers
—Then there was photography, not with small, lightweight equipment,
——b
ut with the best possible equipment and attachments she could afford and lug around!

Diane developed an uncanny knack for figuring out how to carry out activities like these without compromising quality or expertise in the slightest.

She also developed an uncanny knack for taking advantage of our parents’ desire to protect her.

Only as an adult did she confess that her habit of disappearing from the house to do yard work (and not housework) was not motivated chiefly by her pure desire to help Daddy.  Rather, she knew neither Daddy nor Mother would send or call her back inside the house for the latest instruction or practice in vacuuming, dishwashing, dish-drying, table setting, ironing or putting clothes away.

To us, Diane’s body was both normal and different—though it all felt pretty normal most of the time.  Certainly not life-threatening.

Then each of us, her three sisters, got a telephone call from Diane in January 1996.
Diane had ALS.  She was direct and clear:
—There is no cure.
—The disease is terminal.
—I’m going to need help.  Lots of help.

Diane’s left arm shaped her as a child, as a young person and as an adult.
Now Diane’s entire body began shaping her and her family,
beginning most painfully with her husband, two sons and daughter,
and reaching out to all of us gathered here today.

For the last 10 years I’ve flown down to Houston about 4 times a year to visit Diane.  But not just to visit her.  I’ve come to witness a journey—Diane’s very personal journey with ALS.  A journey that relentlessly put Diane’s physical body at the center of attention.

As young girls we weren’t encouraged to pay much attention to our bodies. 
Bodies were a necessary but usually uncomfortable necessity—especially female bodies.  Now, with ALS, Diane was consumed by what was and was not happening in her body.

She suffered losses beyond comprehension—most in fairly rapid succession over a period of years, starting with physical losses such as mobility, ability to care for her own personal needs, eating and swallowing, ability to speak on her own, and breathing. 

She also suffered loss of her position here at the church:
—Loss of her dream of being ordained
—Loss of work and personal relationships as her body more and more seemed to intrude as a difficulty or a problem to be solved
—Loss of time for herself or her family and friends, as personal care began gobbling up hours out of each day
—Loss of privacy:  total and absolute, with only one exception—the thoughts in her mind, which included her life with God
—Loss of little things such as swatting at a mosquito feasting on her neck (as she put it); scratching where it itches; singing in church; being in the middle of the action and making wisecracks

More painfully, she suffered loss of other things such as giving her children a hug, or embracing her husband face to face.  As a female she suffered what most women dread—loss of control over personal presentation of herself:  hairstyle, makeup, body language.  She became the subject of stares and quickly averted eyes.

Diane’s body seemed to be calling the shots.

True to who she already was, however, Diane kept showing up—fully with and in her body marked more and more by ALS.  It was as though she were saying

  • I’m still here—in my body
  • I’m still Diane—in this body
  • I am not whatever you think a terminally ill person should be
  • I am not predictable
  • I am not a saint
  • I’m still Diane!
  • I’m still here and I’m still fully engaged in living–living with ALS
  • I will be who I am—angry, frustrated, filled with anxiety, filled with human longings and everyday needs; direct and clear without being mean
  • I’m dying
  • We need to talk
  • Now

As always, nothing was too sacred for a good healthy laugh.  Especially about her body with its unpredictable body parts, behaviors and small crises:  facial movements, biting her own lip, laughing uncontrollably, head falling over from time to time, drooling from time to time.

Diane continued to be who she already was:
—Determined to speak for herself in her own words, not yours or mine
—Determined to be heard and heeded

She was still directive—now in ways that boggled the mind:
—To-do and Do-not-do lists for family, nurses, friends and strangers
—Rules for how Mom is to be driven in her new van and who gets to say when the rules are being broken (Mom, of course).
—She was still a masterful strategic planner—only now she had to figure out how to get you to do what she could no longer do, but somehow knew must be done.

As always, Diane wasn’t about to fade into the woodwork.  She kept showing up in the flesh—in her ALS-shaped flesh:  at church, in shopping malls, at weddings for her daughter and one of her sons, and even—one month ago, believe it or not, to inspect her daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter’s new home.

Diane remained insistent that she be given choices, and that her choice was the final choice:
—Clothes and accessories for church
—Medical options
—What to keep and what to discard from the kitchen cupboards
—Which movie to watch
—And how this service today would be shaped,
——including the names of all active male pallbearers
——and the names of all 25 honorary female pallbearers!

Diane made her concrete mark in, with and through her concrete, ALS-shaped body.
To deny she was among us in the flesh would be to deny her existence.

To some extent, each of us gathered here to honor and grieve her passing has been a witness.  So many of you are so full of memories.  I can’t speak for you and I won’t get preachy, but I will be confessional:

  • I’m listening, God, for what my relationship to Diane means for the rest of my life in this world you love so much.  Amen.

Eulogy delivered 17 February 2006, © Elouise Renich Fraser, 17 February 2006
Blog post © Elouise Renich Fraser, 15 April 2014

A great reckoning

Covid-19 Memorial

A great reckoning is upon us
With or without our approval

Hundreds of thousands
Lie cold in the earth
From which they came
Tiny bits of joy and wonder

Beautiful even when
Deemed worthless
By those who prize
Color or male genitalia
over heart and soul
Wealth over a fair income
Red lining over fair access
Gerrymandering over truth
Control over empowerment

Now cold in the ground
Or present with the Creator
The dead cry out for justice
Which will surely come
At great loss to the living
Rich or poor or in-between
Democrat or Republican
Independent or Green Party
Or no party at all

As we keep saying,
We’re all in this together–
the high cost of living in the USA
whether we like it or not

I’m always taken aback by the fate of some prophets in Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Though some survive the ordeal of telling the truth to kings and religious leaders, others share the fate of their nation. Like Jesus of Nazareth, they, too end up being killed.

I’m not a champion of martyrdom. Nor do I believe everything will necessarily turn out ‘right.’ At the same time, I believe our smallest actions, seen or unseen, tell the truth about us. Individually and together.

Right now we seem to be sending mixed messages to ourselves and to the world. Messages not just from some of our politicians, but from our churches and religious institutions. Especially, but not only, those filled with or supported by white patrons.

We the people aren’t up for sale to the highest bidder. Not now, not ever. And yes, there’s a cost involved.

Praying each of us will find a way to make a truth-filled difference in this pain-ridden country dying of grief.
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 5 February 2021
Photo of Covid-19 memorial flags found at news.harvard.edu

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