Winter has begun.
This morning, pulling in the folds of my coat as I walked to work, I was braced not only by the chill of the air but by the beauty of the bare trees that line the paths. There’s something elegant, mesmerising, about the naked branches of a tree that reach up against the blue of the morning sky.
There’s much about this season that’s challenging. We instinctively retreat. We might assume beauty goes dormant until brighter times. Yet the trees remind us otherwise.
The English farmer-poet Philip Britts knew this. Back in 1936, in a place much colder than mine, he said it beautifully.
Upon a Hill in the Morning
The timid kiss of the winter sun,
The waiting faith of the naked trees,
The breath of the day so well begun,
Take what you will and leave me these.
Leave me my love and leave me these,
Leave me a soul to feel them still,
Better to be a tramp, who sees,
Than a monarch blind upon a hill.
I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?
Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?
Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
Finally, I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
I first read this poem sometime after the events of 9/11. Partnered with a US citizen, I had two young children born in Los Angeles. Watching the horrific events play out in New York and Washington, it felt to me like the world was coming apart.
These words from poet Wendell Berry came to me from somewhere. I don’t recall how, but they embodied fragility and beauty in a way I needed at the time. I remember laying on the grass of neighbouring Royal Park with my son, looking up at the stars and feeling despair and grace in equal measure. One did not discount the other, but grace held.
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
At just 39 years of age and an alcoholic, the American poet Raymond Carver was given six months to live. In and out of rehab, he was destitute, his marriage over and his career stalled. Somehow Carver found the courage to change. He stopped drinking and began a slow journey back to himself. Ten years later Carver faced a new challenge: lung cancer. At age 50, without bitterness, Carver spent his final days with a deep sense of gratitude for every moment beyond his expectation.
No other word will do. For that’s what it was. Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. ‘Don’t weep for me,’
he said to his friends. ‘I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure gravy. And don’t forget it.’
I read these words just yesterday from American writer Parker J. Palmer. Today they feel true.
Keep on weaving, Palmer says. We will.
On this day long years ago, our promising
young president was killed. He was far too young
to die and I far too young to watch my world unravel
as it did. I grieved my loss, our loss, then started
to reweave — a work, a life, a world — not knowing
then what I know now: the world unravels always,
and it must be rewoven time and time again.
You must keep collecting threads — threads of meaning,
threads of hope, threads of purpose, energy and will —
along with all the knowledge, skill that every weaver needs.
You must keep on weaving — stopping sometimes only
to repair your broken loom — weave a cloak of warmth
and light against the dark and cold, a cloak in which
to wrap whoever comes to you in need — the world
with all its suffering, those near at hand, yourself.
And, if you are lucky, you will find along the way
the thread with which you can reweave your own
tattered life, the thread that more than any other
laces us with warmth and light, making both the
weaver and the weaving true — the red thread
they call Love, the thread you hold, then
hand along, saying to another, “You.”
Parker J. Palmer
Mary Oliver, Blue Horses, Crosier (2014)
You might see an angel anytime
and anywhere. Of course you have
to open your eyes to a kind of
second level, but it’s not really
hard. The whole business of
what’s reality and what isn’t has
never been solved and probably
never will be. So I don’t care to
be too definite about anything.
I have lots of edges called Perhaps
and almost nothing you can call
Certainty. For myself, but not
for other people. That’s a place
you just can’t get into, not
entirely anyway, other people’s
I’ll just leave this.
I don’t care how many angels can
dance on the head of a pin. It’s
enough to know that for some people
they exist, and that they dance.
Now that my parents are gone
the voice inside
has changed to something
but I am still the strange chameleon
caught in different lights.
I believe I was their colour and their light
before I took on different shades
to match an outside world
where they were only shadows
of the people they had been.
I never saw their real colours
I only asked myself
why they were so washed out.
Now that they are gone
I see them differently.
I see them young.
I see them in the people who have come
with other children.
Despite the camouflage
I spot chameleons in my class
the shades of shyness
the flash of angry reds
the old confusion about
the shape of us.
Now that my parents are gone
I tell myself the stories
that I hardly listened to
in a time of growing up
when I was
only half at home.
Olga Pavlinova Olenich
Griffith Review 61, 169-170.
You are surrounded
By great and good companions
With witnesses who ran the race before you
Now cheering you on
Inspiring you with their courageous faith
With witnesses running beside you
Churning up the dust of this well-traveled-path
Encouraging you with the steady beat of their beautiful feet
Run beloved, run
Lay aside every weight
Every inner critic shouting against inspiration
Lay aside the sin that clings so closely
Every self-serving motivation
Every self-medicating choice
Every weak thing you’ve trusted
more than God
Lay them aside
Run beloved, run
Run with perseverance the race
Looking not to the dust, but to Jesus
The Pioneer and Perfecter of your faith
Look not to the right or to the left
Look to Jesus
Jesus is The Way, opening the path
The Truth, clearing the clutter
The Light, blazing the trail
For the sake of the joy
Of setting the joy before you
and in you
Joy is your strength
Remember and endure
For this race comes with a cross
A course of blood and tears
Mocking and piercing
Take it up
Disregard its shame (that ancient enemy)
Let it fall by the wayside
Tired scraps on the breath of new life
Take it up and run
Sit down in the next life
Not this one
Run beloved, run
Following and looking and remembering him who endured
So that you may not grow weary
Or lose heart
For your strongest step is yet to come
Words inspired by Hebrews 12.1-3
© 2014 Lisa Ann Moss Degreni
“Every single one of us could use some mercy now”
“Let your mercy come to me, that I may live”
Mercy now is what I need:
mercy here, today.
Like a mirage, tomorrow’s lies on the horizon;
yesterday’s a faded picture, its corners bent and torn.
Mercy here is what I need —
some tenderness for today.
It’s true: I stride sometimes,
chin up with confidence.
Occasionally I sprint,
the one-hundred metre spiritual dash.
Mostly, though, I stumble.
I fail and falter.
Sometimes I fall.
My knees are scuffed where no one sees.
Mercy now is what I need.
I once imagined saintliness:
a state into which I might progress.
But not now.
There is no box of halos in the attic.
There are no streams of heavenly light
that flood my closet.
O, there are times of knowing —
those of beauty and laughter … and tears.
But there is more of nothing very much,
punctuated with moments of despair
and stretches of silence.
Yes, mercy now is what I need.
If mercy is only yet to come,
then what do we have today?
Striving and trying and hoping
for grace around the corner?
If mercy is only yesterday —
a sparkling jewell received once long ago —
then what is there to hold us now?
This is the truth, you see:
the heart’s undercoat is grey.
Though speckled with hints of colour,
the shadow it casts is long.
Mercy now is what I need:
tenderness enough for today.
Amidst this sombre Holy Week, it feels appropriate to smile at death. For a seasoned celebrant of funerals, this is a close enough to truth to be oddly comforting.
Some precepts of postmodern mourning
There must be a body, but there needn’t be.
The body must be remembered with some fondness:
there must be at least two eulogists, and a third
must have been detained by traffic or a death
and the service must proceed. Sex
must be mentioned, but preferably not, except at the wake
or the séance when most words are permissible again.
On second thought, this precept needn’t apply.
But at least one text must be read from,
preferably composed by the body and significant; it
must include expletives, but needn’t do so.
Everyone must look dignified and important, or at least
significant; move deliberately but not heavily; smile
but laugh only once. Black must be avoided,
except in socks and sunglasses, which must be worn
during the service as well as outside afterwards.
There must be at least a reference to Celtic poetry
or Jewish ancestry, and both Testaments must be drawn upon.
Someone must remark ‘I still can’t believe it’
then ‘Yes I can’, and someone must respond
with a philosophical but solicitous lift of an eyebrow.
One of the mourners must be overheard to whisper,
‘I’m surprised she didn’t come, though it doesn’t
surprise me.’ It must be noted that the body
could never suffer fools gladly, and someone
must observe how much he or she is only now learning
about the body. Someone must say at least one Italian thing
either to mourners or to the body, but a French
or German or Latin or Spanish or Sanskrit thing
will do, or a thing in any other accredited language,
provided the expression is significant. There must be
no public mysticism, though there may be, and coffee
or white wine must be served afterwards. Someone
needs to be squinting tears, preferably a large man
in a double-breasted suit with a crimson kerchief
protruding rudely, coupled with a pallid pusillanimous
niece with a weak chin and beatific smile
nodding with significance. Reincarnation must be accepted
by at least half the mourners, but not mentioned,
though strange omens and premonitions over recent weeks
must be seen as significant in retrospect.
The body must be understood to be pleased with the service,
the simple dignity and grace of the occasion,
the Baroque cantata, the words, the weather. Everything
must be just so. Everything must be significant.
Though in the end it needn’t be. Later, this in itself
must be acknowledged as most significant of all,
or at least put down to the quintessential irony of death.