Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Category: Writing

The Journey | Mary Oliver

Is Mary Oliver talking about herself in this poem? What do you think? My comments follow.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

© Mary Oliver, reprinted in New and Selected Poems, Volume One, pp. 114-15, Published by Beacon Press 1992

The first time I read this poem I was puzzled. Instead of writing directly about herself, Mary seems to be writing to someone else. Or to a past version of herself?

This poem was first published in 1986 in a collection called Dream Work. The current collection includes 18 poems from Dream Work. They focus on Mary Oliver’s personal life. Not a subject she’s particularly thrilled to write about. And yet….

Without her personal story, it’s possible to think Mary Oliver enjoyed a charmed life of wandering in the woods. Visiting ponds and streams. Watching foxes, fish and birds. Lying in fields of Spring flowers. Making notes in her hand-made notepads. Living a magical life in her chosen world that celebrates nature, beauty in the presence of death, and the perfectly sad and glorious ending of each season.

Wrong. Mary Oliver worked hard to ‘save’ her life. She left home. Literally. She walked away from her father’s abusive behavior, and from voices that incessantly cried out for her to mend their lives. Death followed by what? Nothing?

This poem celebrates Mary’s decision to make a clean break. It also celebrates what she found along the way. Something she didn’t even know she had: a life of her own and a voice of her own.

For that alone, I’m grateful. I’m also challenged to keep listening for my own voice in unexpected places.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 15 August 2019
A Dark and Stormy Night, by Warren Criswell, found at saatchiart.com

A quick update

First, Longwood Gardens photos are in the works. Yesterday D and I played hooky and went to Longwood Gardens. Our way of celebrating the end of a long streak of heat waves, rain and heavy winds. D’s photos are on my computer, and I’m already plotting a photo post. The photo at the top is a little taste!

Second bit of blog-related news. I’ve created a Mary Oliver category. I haven’t discarded or forgotten about Emily Dickinson. I am, however, especially drawn to Mary’s poetry right now, and anticipate more posts about the way they intersect with my life.

Third bit. I’ve just begun going through over 100 posts on Death and Dying. I’ve created the category, and will continue populating it with old and new material. I’m eager to think and write about life with death on the horizon. Not that that’s anything new….

And finally, I’m making peace with myself one day at a time. In general, that means taking things a bit slower than usual, and spending time in the attic each day. It’s a fabulous place to relax, read, write, do nothing at all, or think about the wonderful people who have helped bring me up whether they knew it or not.

Hugs to those who need them, and smiles to everyone whether you want them or not!

Elouise

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 25 July 2019
Photo taken by DAFraser, 24 July 2019, Longwood Gardens’ Waterlilies

Four Sisters in Waiting

This is one of my favorite old photos. There aren’t many that have the four of us looking so spiffy! I think we were at a summer conference in North Carolina. If so, this was 1954. I was 11 1/2; Sister #2 was 9; Sister #3 (Diane) was 5; and Sister #4 was 1 1/2 years old.

Judging by our outfits, this was probably taken on a Sunday morning. White socks, shiny shoes, clean dresses, and curled hair. Obediently looking into the camera whether we wanted to or not. We were the daughters of a preacher. Surely life was a piece of cake. Not.

Even so, I love this photo, and am grateful for every opportunity I’ve had to spend time with my sisters. Especially since the late 1990s. They’ve been mirrors for me–telling me more about myself and about themselves and our parents than I remembered.

As some already know, Diane died of ALS in 2006. So now we’re down to three. Even though we don’t always see eye to eye, I find great solace in connecting with them, mostly via the phone.

Back to the photo. If I’m correct, this was the year I played afternoon babysitter to Sister #4. Each day, immediately after lunch in the large conference dining hall, Mom (known as Mother back then) took a much-needed nap and left Sister #4 in my care.

To my great chagrin, more than one conference attendee assumed I was my sister’s mother. I don’t think Sister #4 was keen on the optics, either. I was distressed. How was I going to meet good-looking young men if I had to play momma to my sister?!

One other memory. Sister #4 loved nothing better than lively music to which she could dance. Informally, of course, since dancing itself was a Huge No-No in our family and church.

At this conference, all guests stood at their assigned tables for a hymn or two and a prayer before sitting down to eat. Sister #4 was in a high chair, and broke out into a little sitting jig every time we sang a hymn! I’ll never forget a grumpy old man telling my father he’d better keep his eye on this little girl because she was going to be big trouble!

Little did he know that this docile, obedient Sister #1 was going to be big trouble, too. It takes guts to become a Disobedient Daughter of Eve. A lesson I didn’t learn until I was an adult. Which is why I began this blog in the first place, and why I keep writing. Not to sort things out, but to document what my big trouble looked like, and what it took to break decades of destructive Good Girl habits and beliefs.

Thanks for the visit!
Elouise

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 14 July 2019
Photo taken by JERenich, Summer 1954

Still searching for myself

I’m most alive when I write –
If only for myself.
I don’t understand this deep urge
To put myself on paper,
To make visible things
I’ve held closely guarded –
As though I could keep my life
Safely contained
Within the walls of my mind
Secret, lonely, fearful.

Was or am I a big mistake
Parading as reality?
Worse yet, a fraud trying to be
What she was never meant to be?

I wonder –
Is this related to being white in the USA?
Or better – being white and female in the USA?

My mind has been on race and skin color for the last several days, triggered by one of the books I’m reading. It’s titled White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, by Dr. Carol Anderson, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of African American Studies at Emory University. The book was published in 2016 by Bloomsbury Press.

Chapter titles:
1. Reconstructing Reconstruction
2. Derailing the Great Migration
3. Burning Brown to the Ground
4. Rolling Back Civil Rights
5. How to Unelect a Black President

I don’t understand the depth of our racial divide here in the USA, or of today’s white rage that seems to be spilling over at every turn. I do, however, understand that white rage is deeply embedded in this nation’s history. It’s part of our nation’s history from the beginning. Our old, old story. The one it seems we’d rather bury underground than face head on.

I don’t have answers, so I’m going to keep reading Dr. Carol Anderson’s well-researched, well-written book, and see what happens. Not out there, but in me.

Comments are welcome, whether you’ve read this book or not.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 9 July 2019
Bookcover image found at amazon.com

The way from here

 

The way from here
Grows narrow
A finely chiseled path
From this life
To a world as unknown
As life beyond
The womb

When did birthing begin
And when will it end?

Wondering out loud
I search for midwives
To encourage me now
As in the past
How many and for how long
I cannot say
As I set out on another adventure
Another letting go
Another arrival
Somewhere
Into the waiting hands
And hearts of those
Who love me in life
And in death

How do we learn to die? How do we learn to give birth? How do we learn to say enough is enough? Or no, thank you, I’m not going to opt into our reigning medical model of trying whatever can be tried in order to live a bit longer. Comfort care is one thing; unrealistic hope for healing is something else.

My waking dream this morning led to the poem above. The dream suggested I need help, a midwife or two, to get through the last pieces of my journey on this earth. I might even need to become a midwife to myself. Not just by reading books, but by seeking out professionals to help me navigate what lies ahead.

I anticipate writing and talking about how this works out for me, and commenting on books I’ve been reading. My major guide will be a palliative care doctor I spoke with today. She won’t replace my other wonderful doctors. Instead, she’ll help me work with medical personnel, family members and others. I’m not willing to stay alive at all costs. So how will I get from here to there?

Today has been an up and down day. Lots of emotion about making the telephone call, and huge relief when the doctor said she would take me on. I know this isn’t a very popular topic. So I’m especially grateful if you’ve read to this point.

With hope, gratitude and a teeny tiny sense of adventure for what lies ahead,

Elouise

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 2 July 2019
Photo found at bastyr.edu

Fear has no wings – For our granddaughters 2019

I wrote this over two years ago., and am posting it again for our two beautiful granddaughters.

I was born into a Christian sub-culture driven by fear. Fear of the world, and fear of God whose all-seeing eye follows us day and night.

This was both comforting and terrifying. The world ‘out there’ was harsh and unforgiving. A dangerous place for little girls and big girls. I needed a Guardian.

Yet God’s all-seeing eye was taking notes. Was I being naughty or nice? Was I pleasing God or making God sad, angry or disgusted?

It was super-important to be productive as well as untouched and untainted by ‘the world.’ Evil lurked around every corner. Fear was the best preventive medicine I could take.

Fear helped me keep rules. Fear helped me develop keen eyes for what would please people in authority over me. Fear surreptitiously kept my hand to the grindstone. I wanted to be ready for the day when God would judge me for what I had done and not done.

I grew up without wings. Instead, I developed a remarkable talent for trying harder and jumping higher. Failure or even the whiff of failure was devastating.

Now, many failures later, I’ve begun developing tiny wings. Baby wings. The kind I trimmed back most of my life, trying to stay in the nest and out of trouble.

Being born plopped me into an aching world fraught with pain and anguish, troubles upon troubles. It’s impossible to stay out of trouble if I’m alive and breathing. Whether it’s my fault or not isn’t the issue.

Today I accept trouble in my life. Not because it’s good, but because it helps me develop baby wings. It helps me look up and around, gaining a glimpse of where I might fly next. I don’t want to waste more time trying to jump higher.

Here’s a favorite quote from Simone Weil’s Waiting for God. The highlighting is mine.

There are those people who try to elevate their souls
like someone who continually jumps from a standing position
in the hope that forcing oneself to jump all day—and higher every day—
they would no longer fall back down, but rise to heaven.
Thus occupied, they no longer look to heaven.

We cannot even take one step toward heaven.
The vertical direction is forbidden to us.
But if we look to heaven long-term,
God descends and lifts us up.
God lifts us up easily.

As Aeschylus says,
‘That which is divine is without effort.’
There is an ease in salvation more difficult for us than all efforts.

In one of Grimm’s accounts, there is a competition of strength
between a giant and a little tailor.
The giant throws a stone so high that it takes a very long time
before falling back down.
The little tailor throws a bird that never comes back down.
That which does not have wings always comes back down in the end.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 29 April 2017, reposted 6 June 2019
Photo of baby golden-eye ducks found at urbanpeek.com

Prayer from a beginner

Because You know me best
And lived Your unscripted life
Amongst the rest of us in the
Tangible body of a human being
Full of gracious truth and mercy….

I pray for grace to write poems
Leaping here and there
Without effort or forethought
Landing on the right note
At just the right time

I ache to write how much You
Love us and our stumbling music
Plus our tears in the night when
No one is looking or hears
What You alone understand

In rare moments when apt words
Tumble from my subconscious
I’m in awe and deeply grateful
For songs You sing to each of us
Especially in the shadowy light
Of any too-long day or night

And finally, for each of us,
I pray courage to face each day
Without fear and with no more
Uncertainty or loneliness than
You were able to bear when
Walking in our shoes of clay

From one of your followers.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 28 May 2019
Image found at WFMT.com

Writing about Life and Death

Dear Friends,
I have death on my mind these days. Not without life. Yet it’s different, this discipline of writing about death.

Just over a week ago my Fitbit One fell into the toilet! No kidding. No resuscitation. And no easy replacement. I’ve used a Fitbit for approximately ten years. Never once did it jump into the toilet. Until now.

Alas! My faithful Fitbit One is no longer sold or actively supported by Fitbit. So I’ve moved to a lowly pedometer. It won’t produce the same data and analysis. It will, however, get me off my butt and moving every day.

My latest waking dream, posted with a poem called Portals, was also about big change. In the dream, I’ve left my familiar world and just arrived in a different space. It looks and feels like a transitional space. Think of an international airport only nicer. A place where people of all ages, races, nationalities and ways of life are mingling. I’m a beginner, yet at ease and happy to be there.

Here’s something else that’s happening. I’m playing the piano more often and enjoying it more. In the dream I find a room brimming with children singing, and adults out in the hallway singing along with them. I didn’t want it to stop.

Which reminds me of my visits with Diane. Each time I visited, I cried when it was time to leave. Every visit held moments of beauty, pain, and deep connection. Saying goodbye was painful. I didn’t want to leave because Diane might die before I returned.

That’s similar to the way I feel about playing the piano. It’s a sign that beauty hasn’t vanished from my life. Nor will it. Just as long as I stay ‘close to the bone’ and keep telling the truth. Even if I’m not able to play the piano anymore.

In the meantime, I want to know how all of this will play out in my writing. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says this:

The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth.

© Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, p. 3, published by Pantheon Books in 1994

One thing is certain. Each of us will die sooner or later. I want to walk and write toward death truthfully and with intention, open to voices of others, and especially open to my own voice and experiences along the way.

Thanks for listening and visiting!
Elouise 

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 24 May 2019
Photo found at messynessychic.com

Before I die

In November 2013 I wrote the following opening and closing lines of Why This Blog?

I need to say some things out loud before I die. I’m not knowingly staring death in the face, yet I know my days are numbered….If I don’t tell the truth about my life, I will die inside. I want to live, and I want my children and grandchildren to live.

I didn’t know it then, but this blog isn’t just about the truth of my life as I’ve experienced it. It’s also about my death. Not that I know the day and hour. I don’t. Still, it’s closer now than it was in November 2013—the month before I published my first post.

I just searched my posts. So far, not by conscious design, I’ve written about death 175 times (out of 1398 total). It seems I can’t let this topic go.

I find writing about death is comforting. I didn’t grow up in a family that talked easily about death or dying. Nor have I been part of a community or church that focused on this, especially as part of life.

I’m not a morbid person by nature. I am, however, keenly aware of my mortality. Not just because of my age and health issues, but because of the increasing disruption and unpredictability of life on this planet.

So what does it mean to die? Not just at the end of life, but along the way from here to there. And how does that change my daily choices and relationships? Especially with my family members, beginning with D.

These are a few things on my mind these days. Which is another way of saying I’ll be posting more pieces about death. I’ll also post other things as well–my take on the current state of affairs in the USA, photo posts from adventures with D, poetry, the occasional report about life with Smudge, and whatever else wants to be written.

Thanks to each of you for visiting, reading, and sharing your experiences from time to time.
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 27 April 2019
Photo taken by DAFraser in the Portland Rose Garden

Land of the Brave?

My erratic heartbeats
Find calm in the sound of
Music drifting through
Air spun with gossamer webs
Transporting me through
What I experience daily
Of this life threatening to
Undo us from the inside out
Unraveling threads of truth
And justice for each and all

Waking with a start
My heart searches for
Courage and bravery to
Speak even one word against
Forces paying to play the
Game of hide and seek –
Cowards banging on the
Heart of our so-called union
And commitment to justice
For every human being

What does bravery look like
During national upheaval and
Underground warfare against
Humanity if not the constant
Repetition of what we see
Through the windows of hearts
Made brave the hard way beginning
The instant we were born into
This world of deceitful revenge
And false prophets of nirvana

Mary Tyler Moore’s well-known statement comes to mind:

“You can’t be brave if you’ve had only wonderful things happen to you.”

Perhaps this is true of each of us, no matter the circumstances of our early lives. At the same time, bravery now isn’t necessarily the same as bravery then. As a child and teenager I was brave and uncomplaining in order to stay out of trouble. Especially when someone was watching, measuring me by my father’s Rules for Good Girls.

Today, bravery is called for even when no one seems to be looking. It isn’t about staying out of trouble. It’s about being honest, no matter the consequences.

Easier said than done. For me, posting what I write is the bottom line. If I’m willing to write about it, am I willing to post it? Without turning it into harmless childhood mush? My childhood still shapes me. It doesn’t, however, control me. I  still have a lot to learn about telling the truth as I see it. Especially in today’s atmosphere.

Thanks for listening!

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 20 March 2019
Cat image found at bookstr.com

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