Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Tag: Relationships

A Bitterness | Mary Oliver

This poem by Mary Oliver hooked me a few months ago. I think it’s about her father. In Upstream: Selected Essays, Mary describes what she did in order to have a life of her own. This included taking a different route in life than her father took. In this poem, she describes his life as she understands it after his death.

A Bitterness

I believe you did not have a happy life.
I believe you were cheated.
I believe your best friends were loneliness and misery.
I believe your busiest enemies were anger and depression.
I believe joy was a game you could never play without stumbling.
I believe comfort, though you craved it, was forever a stranger.
I believe music had to be melancholy or not at all.
I believe no trinket, no precious metal, shone so bright as your bitterness.
I believe you lay down at last in your coffin none the wiser and unassuaged.
Oh, cold and dreamless under the wild, amoral, reckless, peaceful flowers of the hillsides.

© by Mary Oliver in 1992; published by Beacon Press in New and Selected Poems, Volume One, winner of The National Book Award; poem found on p. 43

I wonder what Mary Oliver’s father would say about this description. It strikes me as a perceptive and honest lament. This is the father she left in order to save her own one precious life. It’s also the bitter man who never found the comfort he craved.

In the last lines, Mary Oliver points to the strange disconnect between his ‘cold and dreamless’ world (in life and in death), and the beautifully wild yet peaceful flowers now covering the ground above his coffin. The contrast couldn’t be more painful.

As a young girl, Mary Oliver endured brutal mistreatment from her father. Her poem entitled “Rape” leaves no doubt. Nonetheless, Mary Oliver’s relationship with her father didn’t disappear. She comes back to it in several poems in this collection.

In this poem, she points to a sad irony about her father. Here he rests, “cold and dreamless under the wild, amoral, reckless, peaceful flowers of the hillsides.” Clueless about what he missed in life and, even more painful, what he missed in his daughter’s life. All because of his undying bitterness.

The poem reminds me of my father, and the circumstances that shaped his outlook on life and on me. What poem might I write about my father? What might be his identifying characteristic? If not ‘bitterness,’ then what? And how does that affect me today?

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 20 September 2019
Photo found at fineartamerica.com

Living in the purple zone

Living in the purple zone*
Unconstrained by party loyalties yet
Uneasy about befriending strangers
Or talking about tough issues –
What has happened to me?

How many times have I caved
To the lowest common denominator
Or looked the other way
Or changed the subject
To avoid tough conversations?

Why do I hear few references
To injustices of yesterday
That might help me understand
Currents and tides now miring us
In the swamp of us versus them?

Perhaps there already lurks within
A deep longing for this disquietude
To disappear into the bowels
Of our churches, cities and towns
Afraid to stir up what won’t go away

Meanwhile we mere mortals living
In the purple zone or not go about
Our daily lives minus truth or
Justice or even a quick look into
The mirror of our own demise

*The purple zone: neither red nor blue, the two major political party colors in the USA

Here’s my dilemma:

I have a handful of friends willing to talk openly about social/political realities that are in plain view every day. These realities drive our politics, social lives, economics, and increasingly our church preferences. They also impact us differently depending on things like race, gender, age, immigration status, color of skin and dialect.

These and a host of other ‘sorting out’ categories lie just beneath the surface of every social interaction and social avoidance technique.

For the most part, we here in the USA seem to have deeply ingrained avoidance habits. We like being with birds of our feather. Especially in spaces where we might have conversations that matter. Places like churches or other religious institutions, small study groups and classrooms of all kinds.

Though I’d like this to be my dilemma alone, I fear it is not. Any and all feedback will be gratefully received.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 15 September 2019

Forget the third day | Our 9/11 Wedding

11 September 1965
D and I on the right; Sister #2 and J (now deceased) on the left

It’s already the 4th day of our bedroom and den updates. Yesterday was chaotic, at least for me. Our painters/carpenters got down to the nitty gritty. Translation: lots of noisy pounding, trips up and down the stairs to bring in supplies, and prepping the new den and bedroom ceilings for paint.

This morning they removed heavy old furniture from the bedroom, installed new baseboards and a bookshelf, and who knows what else. Lots of up and down the stairs again, plus sawing and pounding.

Yesterday was our 54th wedding anniversary, marked by the absence of any big celebration. Partly because of tributes to all those impacted by the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks 18 years ago. Sadly, we’ve inherited more problems we never saw coming, and seem to be without resources to address long-term. That would be ongoing fallout from long-term health and well-being issues.

So what about our 54 years of marriage? On the day we married, D and I inherited challenges we never saw coming. So what has it taken to survive and thrive? Here’s some of what it’s meant for me.

  • Learning to ask for help from trustworthy people
  • Learning to tell D things I don’t want to talk about because I feel embarrassment, shame or humiliation
  • Learning to listen to D without jumping in to have my say before he’s finished with his say
  • Overcoming my fear of being female in a male-dominated world–without making D the enemy
  • Making painful mistakes in my relationship with D and starting over–small steps, one at a time
  • Learning, especially now, to let D do what I might be able to do for myself, but don’t have energy to accomplish
  • Forgetting about perfection in anything–housecleaning, playing the piano, keeping to a schedule….
  • Taking time to be together away from home–Longwood Gardens, the Zoo, church, visiting neighbors and family members….
  • Ending each day together, relaxing with Smudge on our laps sound asleep!

All this and more, of course. The bottom line is still the same: Marriage has been hard work and a form of dying. Not in a morbid way, but dying to My dreams for us, My way of seeing D’s world, My brilliant ideas….and finding there’s life in creative thinking together about even the most difficult problems We face.

Thanks for visiting!
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 12 September 2019
Photo of the lovely couples; taken 11 September 1965 in the church basement following our double wedding ceremony; Savannah, Georgia

On the second day

On the second day
Four men plus one disconnect
Our important lifelines
Most painful was the internet
Which drives me into my
One size fits all office and
Temporary bedroom
Hoping for a quiet moment
In which to write a line or two

Already marked off my list
For the day – one lovely walk
In this end of summer weather
Accompanied by incessant
Mowing and sawing and pounding
Plus the nearly total absence
Of children now gathered
Inside school rooms bursting with
Joy and unexpressed sadness

Agony seeps beneath closed doors
Daily flooding the earth in
Sorrow and tears of pain
Drenching carefully chosen outfits
And routines that proclaim
All is well especially when it
Isn’t and we’ve forgotten how
To accompany one another
Through these trying seasons

I walked by the grade school this morning, thinking about burdens children carry to school. Not huge book-bags, but things like hunger for food, for peace at home, a best friend or an adult willing to listen and cheer them on. The kind I had when I was 9 years old. Her name was Mrs. Hanks. She taught me much more than how to play the piano with grace and joy.

As you can see, our internet connection is back. I’m relieved, though the electrical work is taking longer than anticipated. It’s an old house, designed by a carpenter in the mid-1900s for his wife and family of many children. It’s full of wonderful bits, and some not so wonderful realities such as strange wiring patterns and lack of attention to squaring things off.

The contractors just left. Time to release Smudge from his laundry room penthouse, and get on with what’s left of today.

Cheers!
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 10 September 2019
Photo of Mrs. Hanks and me, taken by JERenich in Spring 1960

Shades of memories

What will become of today
After the sun sets
And the moon moves on
To other nights
In other places

Will anyone remember
Or care what happened
Just now
When I laid eyes on you
And you on me

Shades of memories echo
From your eyes and face
Just beyond reach
Whispers calling to me
In the dark of dawn

A small poem for a large presence in my life. I’ll never forget the first day D’s eyes smiled at me. Just the way they do today. It was 1961. I was a sophomore in college; he was a junior. The quiet type, except for that sparkle in his eyes. I’d never had a man, or boy for that matter, smile at me with his eyes the way D did. To say I went all weak inside would be an understatement. Now, 58 years later, he still has the gift.

Happy Wednesday!
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 28 August 2019
Image found at creativelive.com

Haunted

Haunted by a slave market photo taken
On our way to summer Bible camp
To be indoctrinated directly and
Indirectly by the ‘good’ news of
White Christianity posing as the answer
To every question we might have
Including how slaves are to behave
And not behave toward their masters
And mistresses and white folk

Deep south heat rises from the ashes
Of lynchings, cross burnings and beatings
No water of baptism or gorgeous lake
Could ever quench the flaming seed planted
Fertilized and watered daily in us
We were God’s children
We were special
We were white
We were privileged
We were better
We belonged

Sit up straight little children
Hold very still and look into the camera
Not every child gets to visit a cleaned-up
Slave market in cleaned-up Sunday go to
Meeting clothes and live to tell about it
In this enlightened age of freedom
And justice for all

Was this the first slave market in the USA? It claimed to be. But does it really matter? Here it is, kept alive in the middle of this small Georgia town. A daily reminder to all inhabitants of who they are and are not.

The photo was taken in 1958 on a bus trip from Savannah, Georgia, to a summer Bible camp we attended regularly. I’m in the very back, tall, with glasses. Sister #2 is standing directly in front of me. Sister #3 (Diane) is sitting on the front row, second from the right. My father made this a regular stop on the way to camp, and loved taking photos of us on the market steps.

This was one small cog in the machinery that kept us in line. Good little white girls and boys obediently lining up for a photo op. Relieved to have our superior status, even though we knew something wasn’t right and that we’d done nothing to earn white skin.

Our nation is coming apart at the seams. High time? Yes. Dangerous? Yes. Can we get through this and emerge stronger, wiser and more compassionate? I wish I knew.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 22 August 2019
Photo taken by JERenich, 1958, in Louisville, Georgia

On this side of heaven

On this side of heaven
Components are missing
Without which I am expected
To keep functioning
Albeit slowly and with effort
Especially in the white hot
Heat of summer sun
Boiling over into my veins
Weary muscles screaming for
Blessed relief

Outside I hear our neighbor’s
Lawn mower chugging back and forth
Droning its way through
This week’s crop of tender grass
Now rudely chopped and left
Lying in withering weather
Unable to cry out or scream
Enough is enough please
Let me rest in peace or go
To seed just one more time

Inside the air conditioner labors
Creating semi-civilized space
In which to sort through
Accumulations of a lifetime
Heaving and tossing what
Will never rise from the dead
In this life or we hope in the next
Dust flies in the face of reality
Only too eager to coat the past
With its tell-tail pall of powder

The last few weeks were a blur of doctor appointments, conversations with contractors, decisions about our bedroom reclamation project, and sorting through accumulated belongings.

So far, so good. We’ve managed to leave a respectable amount of livable space throughout the house. The actual work won’t begin right away. In the meantime, I’ve become allergic to keeping things around that have no clear purpose.

Not that we haven’t done this before. We have. But this time it feels different. Our late-70s have begun, and who knows how long we’ll have beyond that. So yes, I’m laughing and crying my way through bits and pieces I’d forgotten about, then letting them go. Feeling lighter with each fond, relieved, or I-can’t-believe-I-did-that farewell.

Cheers!
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 17 August 2019
Cool male cardinal photo found at mix.com

Coping with homegrown terrorism

I don’t know about you, but I’ve learned a bit about me. Not everything, but enough to know how I cope with homegrown terrorism.

My first thought is relief that this isn’t happening to me. Definitely a way of protecting myself from the truth. Whatever steals life from someone else, steals life from me. It doesn’t matter how safe I think I am.

My second thoughts are a form of spiritual distancing: I could or would never stoop to do what that person just did.

And yet…seeds of terror are in me. Not just as a survivor, but as a perpetrator. If not in outward deeds, then in attitudes and thoughts that lead to outward behaviors. For example: Perhaps I have superior judgment and wisdom. Or a special angel that protects me from things like this.

Worse yet, I believe I could never do anything like that to another human being. Indeed, maybe I wouldn’t do it that way. Yet I know that my heart is human, given to fears, insecurity, self-sufficiency and taking advantage of others’ weaknesses. Are these not part of the picture as well?

This morning I read Nan C. Merrill’s personal re-imagining of Psalm 10. Here’s what stood out to me. Please note that I am not absolving terrorists. Rather, I’m challenged to be honest about my own struggles as I relate to other human beings and to our Creator.

Why do You seem so far from me, O Silent One?
Where do You hide when fears beset me?
I boast and strike out against those weaker than myself,
even knowing I shall be caught in a snare of my own making.

When I feel insecure, I look for pleasure,
greed grips my heart and I banish You from my life.
In my pride, I seek You not,
I come to believe, “I am the Creator of the world.”

I even prosper at times:
Your Love seems too great for me, out of my reach;
as for my fears, I pretend they do not exist.
I think in my heart, “I do not need You;
adversity will come only to others.”

My eyes watch carefully for another’s weakness,
I wait in secret like a spider in its web;
I wait that I might seize those who are weaker than myself,
draw others into my web, that I might use them to feel powerful.

….Break then the webs I have woven,
Seek out all my fears until You find not one.
You are my Beloved for ever and ever;
All that is broken within me will be made whole….
That I might live with integrity
And become a loving presence in the world!

Excerpts from Psalms for Praying, ©1996 by Nan C. Merrill
Published 2003 by The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.

Praying your Monday is thoughtful and productive, if not always safe.
Elouise

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 5 August 2019 

Coded language

Coded language
Covers fear lurking
Within contours of life
Under scrutiny
And the ungodly weight
Of being right and
Righteously unrighteous

Does this not become us?
Or are we becoming
The deepest fears
Haunting our dreams

Look in the mirror
Listen to your precious life
It doesn’t last forever
Lay aside childhood fear
Of not fitting in

Sit down and then
Stand up and speak out
On behalf of strangers

Our lives are the test
Not our coded words
Or the colors on flags
We wear and hide behind
In a desperate bid
For approval from our
Latest false gods

I wrote this last week after a particularly unspectacular news cycle filled with rage and vendettas. It isn’t ‘their’ problem. It’s our problem, born of lack of faith and lack of courage.

I applaud public figures who stand up and speak out on behalf of all of us. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they could change the atmosphere of our public discourse? However, even if we end up with leaders able to do this, I’m not counting on them.

I’m counting on the little people. People like you and like me. Everyday human beings who aren’t afraid to welcome strangers into their lives. Especially ‘political’ strangers who may include former friends, or family members.

When I look at the life of Jesus of Nazareth, I don’t see a human being who hid behind coded words or political and religious party lines. Nor do I see someone on a great campaign to win votes. After all, in the end all that didn’t matter.

What mattered was his life of truth-telling, compassion and fierce determination to be human, pointing beyond himself to the One who matters above all others. The only One to whom he owed supreme allegiance.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 15 July 2019

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

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