One sharp pain. One utterance of surprise. Oh.
He leaves no great philosophies. There are no medals, no headstone.
Only a few strings left attached to this world.
Letters in government files
The sacrifice a mother makes to prove her relation to the boy whose life is opened up on paper
for a pension she is denied.
Is it invasion to hang on their every word --
the words of intimacy and filial love in these letters?
I am his family too and he is mine.
These strings scribbled on cheap, creased stationery
little ways of knowing a great deal (though I knew him
without knowing it all my life ).
Apologizing for his handwriting and blaming his pen.
Butter from a country doctor as he sits in a hospital bed.
No letters from home yet.
Despair in one string, bravado in another;
A book sent home to remember him by and
I'm a tuff buck now.
Have brother plant these pair seeds
They be big as a fist and
He spells as he spoke:
haint, dast, Upstate I beThe book cost me dear.
The last string of words
money sent home for mother's new house
never be afraid to ask, I gladly go without.
He is my muse and my relation
All these years later a picture is found
and we look the same.
I've known him and I have no doubts.
Never question God's creative force,
or His happy coincidences.
The heavens open sometimes
and the saints speak and pray --
happy for reunion.
Yet we are courageous, and we would rather leave the body and go home to the Lord.
My husband’s mother cancelled Christmas one year after her dog Mopsy died. She didn’t get another dog for over twenty years. When my husband’s favorite Golden Retriever died I said I thought it was a little disrespectful for him to want a quick replacement, but I immediately jumped in to seek out another. We picked up a new puppy a week after burying Elizabeth.
When my best friend Rosie died suddenly last summer, I vowed never to get another Cavalier King Charles Spaniel – then I started looking. Over the years the breed has become a status symbol. The interview process can be ridiculously grueling. I tried to explain to my husband why the breeders had to be so — particular.
“Golden breeders aren’t such snobs,” he would often say, and it’s true.
And then I discovered a new breed, one I had never heard of, one that intrigued me, one with a LONG life expectancy. Losing two dogs in less than a year had been tough on us. I wanted to avoid the pain if we could.
I deleted all of the Cavalier Instagrams I followed. I couldn’t handle seeing so much cuteness knowing I would never have another Rosie. I started following Tibetan Spaniel Instas instead. My husband was still bent on getting me a Cavalier puppy.
“It’s your signature breed,” he said. “I don’t care if they cost $6000 and still have heart murmurs that slowly kill them.”
“No. I want a Tibbie,” I said, not sure at first if I meant it, but then I did.
My husband stayed up nights scouring the breeder map and was willing to drive all the way to the Mississippi if need be (we had only driven a few hours to get the Golden puppy, but there’s no stopping him once on a mission). The phone rang one day (it was one of the top breeders of Tibbies!). “Oh, so you have no litters planned? But you have a retired show dog who sticks his tongue out too much? I’ll ask her, but she wants a puppy. Yes, send us a picture.” My husband turned to me. “You’re already settling on the breed and now it’s a two-year old dog …”
The email came through and I gasped — I actually really gasped. I was instantly in love with ZACK. Even the name spoke of greatness somehow. And he is pretty terrific. Before him we had only female dogs and they always fought. He walked in the door, glanced around, claimed the best couch and put all the other dogs in their place. Nala, the big white non-farm dog always seemed jittery in her alpha dog position. Now she can finally relax.
All dogs need to ask if they can join Zack’s humans on the couch and the bed. Actually the bed is off limits to the big girls now. He gathers all of the toys and doles them out as he sees fit and lounges at my side when I write. Sometimes you have to try new things or new breeds.
My husband has more than returned the favor. I still miss Rosie and Elizabeth, but there’s always more room for love.
“Petting, scratching, and cuddling a dog could be as soothing to the mind and heart as deep meditation and almost as good for the soul as prayer.”
The morning begins. Those first sleepy moments are driven off by the cold in the mudroom as I tug my thick overalls and muddy boots on over my pajamas. There is something to knowing you’re needed, a mutual, satisfying feeling between the animals and me. We always say that every day is a good and pampered one for the animals except for their last.
I can’t imagine the loneliness of a farm with no animals. When we must load lambs off on their last day I cry and seriously consider giving it all up. But then I remember how sick I was without meat, and think too about the state of factory farming, and how life is a series of compromises. Not a single human soul is truly pure or innocent.
“I dislike the thought that some animal has been made miserable to feed me. If I am going to eat meat, I want it to be from an animal that has lived a pleasant, uncrowded life outdoors, on bountiful pasture, with good water nearby and trees for shade.”
When you raise animals you tend not to waste their sacrifices. I laugh at the ram lambs as they gambol about and admire the proud ewes as they murmur sweet nothings to their newborns. They clean and dote over them with such soft looks in their eyes — looks that disappear after the little brutes get bigger and nearly upend her seeking milk.
Every night there’s the big sky in its various moods as I trudge down to the barn. The wind, the snow, the sun, the autumn leaves in little whirlwinds in the apple orchard — all things to keep me forever in the world, forever in the seasons, forever dirty, forever unfinished.
For the curious there is always so much more to learn. For someone like me who is so attached to the past, there is nothing better than discovering how my ancestors went about doing the same chores I do now.
Work keeps me sane and the seasons keep me from ever complaining about the monotony of chores. Yet chores aren’t really monotonous. Chores are dependable. Every night I announce, even when we have visitors, “Okay, I have to go do the animals.” It’s funny to think that for ten years I’ve said it exactly the same way. Not a single word changed. The tone is almost a complaint, but not really. Once I’m alone and outside I’m happy to be there.
“He who tills his own land has food in plenty, but he who follows idle pursuits is a fool.”
The mini horse with his big personality always whinnies at the sound of the house door slamming. He still likes to push me around but I’ve charmed him into doing things I want to do as well. We’ve become friends. Every year I get quieter. I think it’s a spell that comes over some people who grow lots of things and keep farm animals. There’s so much to witness, tiny signs and bugs that hint at future doom or survival. Intuition, that feeling in your gut, becomes attuned to the dull look in a sick sheep’s eye. Sometimes in this quiet you know exactly what that dull look means.
I love the sound of a ticking clock. When I’m writing I prefer that to be the only noise. The other day the house was silent but for the ticking. I sat to write but was nudged by some spirit to go to the window. There against the white snow stood a fox staring right into our chicken coop. He looked curious, but I’m pretty sure he was just deciding which color hen he wanted for lunch.
The indoor farm dog was sent out to chase as I stumbled into my boots shouting from the garage (as if a fox would ever listen to me). The snow was so bright I was nearly blinded and didn’t get to the coop as fast as I would have in better weather. We lost one chicken. I spent much of the morning trying to corral the frightened flock inside for safety. Some regarded me as their savior and let me carry them into the coop. I felt complimented. The chickens are lucky. We take the eggs they couldn’t care less about and they live until they die of natural causes (whatever that means for animals with so many predators loving the taste of chicken).
I’m so happy that there are young people as entranced with the old ways as I am. The ideal of total independence is just that — an ideal, but without a grassroots embracing of the small and local, our land and independence will be swallowed up by an ELITE FEW who want to control (and change) our food supply. Slavery starts when the few control the very sustenance of life.
Yesterday was the beginning of Lent for Christians.
This was the first time in years (or maybe ever) that I was excited to get the ashes smeared on my forehead. Going back to Confession was a big step for me since for the longest time I hated the idea of a priesthood set apart. I wanted to be on equal footing with everyone and liked the idea of having “accountability partners” who basically were just as flawed and untrained as me.
It’s a rare friend who tells you the truth about your missteps.
The priest I went to see was pretty hardcore (in a nice way). He didn’t downplay my tendency to jump into family gossip and self-righteous back-stabbing of my adult siblings. After all everyone in the family does it. The priest shook his head. “No, that’s a bad sin.” Of course he was far more eloquent about it.
Friends tend to help you find excuses for your bad behavior. After a while all of my “accountability partners” became suspect. It started to bother me when they soft-pedaled around things. I’ve done the same, thinking to myself this person is a train wreck but not saying it. I mean, calling someone a train wreck isn’t helpful anyway, but you know what I mean. I didn’t have the faith that the friendship could survive an honest appraisal of the person’s behavior.
A priest at Mass recently talked about how draining it was in this time of priest shortages and bad-apple priests to carry the weight of parishioners’ sins. Until I “got” the sacredness of the priests’ position I would not have understood what he was saying. He intercedes for us! Now that is a burden for sure!
I was tempted to wipe the ashes from my head. I was torn because some teach that wearing your faith on your sleeve (or forehead) is offensive to the sensibilities of others, and I so enjoy being liked. Some say you should proclaim your faith in actions and behavior. In the end, since I’ve decided to fully embrace traditional Catholic culture I went ahead and wore the ashes to class.
Totally by coincidence, the judge who was involved in the adoption of our daughter was taking the same class with his tiny pug-like dog Wolfgang (which is the cutest name ever). It’s always funny to see people outside of where you put them in your head. Obviously the judge doesn’t wear his robes to class (and he doesn’t command the same authority with his dog that he does in the courtroom).
He smiled when he saw the ashes (by now I had forgotten them). “Oh, I forgot today was Ash Wednesday,” he said, “but I went to a Fat Tuesday pancake dinner last night. It was really good.” He sheepishly laughed again. How could he have forgotten after a full night of pancakes? I laughed too.
We all care so much about what people think. 🙂 As a writer I care about every last review and fret when people on Amazon find the few negative reviews from when I first published MY NOVEL “helpful” because this lands those reviews as Top Reviews. I tried to explain to an Amazon rep that it would be better to set the default on reviews to MostRecent (since my book has been thoroughly re-edited and getting good reviews for a while now) but to no avail.
I found this this helpful:
“To realize how desperately we depend on the ‘existence’ that recognition by others gives us, and how hopeless we are without it until God gives us feet to stand alone on. I have those feet sometimes, but once again, let me realize that there is no absolute ‘standing alone’ — only awful poverty and insecurity and clinging to God in one’s need of others, and greater appreciation of the smallest and most insignificant of communal verities.” THOMAS MERTON
Going to puppy school has been a good thing for me. The tendency to keep in my hermitage actually makes me more desirous of outside praise and notoriety. I don’t want to be that bitter person who compares likes on Instagram and lives for new followers, but it’s an easy trap to fall into. At puppy class everyone goes without their authoritative robes. We are all at least partially dependent on the whims of the puppies. Learning to let your guard down and take your lickings and laugh when you can’t make puppies stay is the best kind of humbling experience. And in this most insignificant of communal experiences I find, as I already know but forget, that we are all the same and live in this mystery of loneliness and friendship.
“None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands. A glimmer of that feeling has shone so often in your eyes when — like the artists of every age — captivated by the hidden power of sounds and words, colours and shapes, you have admired the work of your inspiration, sensing in it some echo of the mystery of creation with which God, the sole creator of all things, has wished in some way to associate you.” Letter of John Paul II to Artists
Isn’t there something thrilling in the idea that God, through some mysterious inspiration, taps our shoulders and asks us to birth beauty? Artists are graced especially with a sense that we are given something from nothing. We take an idea only just now occurring to us and bring it into this dimension of reality. When we have taken our inspiration seriously enough, we sense the importance of it or the goodness within it even in its embryonic stages. Though our limited talents may always disappoint us, there is a sense that this idea, this vision was given as a gift — if even a more humble one than others receive. Yet is any gift small if it is meant especially for us?
When we keep our eyes on the gift before us, we feel that expansive breath and excited heartbeat. It transports us to the heavens — if only for moments of time. I don’t know if everyone is gifted with such moments or if it is really only given to artists. I do know that we have a choice to accept the grace or not.
For twenty years I ran from God’s call on my life like Jonah, and I too was swallowed by a whale. I had caused many storms and needed to be thrown overboard. I turned back to God and the creative call only after everything else that seemed more practical had failed.
But it doesn’t matter anymore. Saying yes to the art that God asks us to make puts you in a special mood — one that makes life very simple even when it’s difficult. Listen and obey.
Have you ever felt called to do something? Did you run from it or embrace it instantly? I’d love to know in the comments!
“God travels wonderful ways with human beings, but he does not comply with the views and opinions of people. God does not go the way that people want to prescribe for him; rather, his way is beyond all comprehension, free and self-determined beyond all proof. Where reason is indignant, where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps us away: that is precisely where God loves to be. There he confounds the reason of the reasonable; there he aggravates our nature, our piety—that is where he wants to be, and no one can keep him from it.
Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly…. God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas
“You keep us waiting. You, the God of all time, Want us to wait. For the right time in which to discover Who we are, where we are to go, Who will be with us, and what we must do. So thank you … for the waiting time.”
John Bell, quoted in The Westminster Collection of Christian Prayers
Do you think of this time of year as a time of reflection or a time for shopping? I confess that for most of my life I’d never even thought about the weeks before Christmas as something separate from the actual holiday (which I rarely reflected upon either).
So what is there to reflect upon? For Christians advent is not about waiting to put the porcelain baby in the tiny manger on Christmas, but about waiting for the second advent when Christ returns. Non-Christians may find this a foolish notion, but I wonder if there is a person alive who doesn’t feel that humanity needs to be saved.
Social media and “the news” — no matter the flavor — ask us to take sides in the battle to save children, animals, foreigners, neighbors and the planet because we all know in our bones that we need saving and that there is something of value to save.
This year I find myself at loose ends (the perfect time to reflect).
I wonder about blogging. I’ve made some great friends.
I feel constrained sometimes.
Years ago at college I took a journalism course called Minorities in the Media. The professor loved my political writing, and I loved the praise. At the time, I was marching behind banners supporting terrorism in my spare time. I embraced a victim-hood that wasn’t even my own because I had an Irish last name. For a brief time the badge of victim-hood got me good grades and a seat at the university activist table. It also meant that I cared little for the people who might die for disagreeing over the issues I marched for in complete safety. In short, I was young, naive and ignorant of the complexities of human nature and history — so much so that compassion disappeared.
I remember one young man who dared question the narrative. He was Jewish and had living relatives who had survived the Holocaust. He refused victim status. The professor often stood back as the mob shouted him down. I remained quiet more out of cowardice than anything else, but that one boy’s stand against group-think made an impression on me.
In the books I’ve written I have never considered shying from controversial topics, yet more and more when I blog I find myself second-guessing writing about things I really believe in. The idea of offending someone and having to spend a day defending an off-the-cuff remark just seems so boring and useless. Politics and religion are fascinating subjects but the idea of writing about them in the present environment is so fraught with anger and hysteria I find it difficult to wade in.
With a few exceptions the internet is becoming a cultural desert for me. People are told to write how-to-blog/how-to-write posts to get more followers. People are told to stay away from religion and politics. Or to write about religion and politics to create extreme controversy and buzz.
I am guilty of it all. I’m guilty of chasing followers. I’m guilty of insincerity and of paying too much attention to the repetitive promptings of how-to-write/how-to-do-life blogs which at this point all blur into one another.
So why blog?
To build a platform? (when do we feel the satisfaction we are hunting for?)
To meet only like-minded people? (doesn’t this get so very boring?)
To trash opponents? ( I admit I too often find reading this stuff entertaining — but such a waste of time)
To offer advice? (not always — but often — the advice is copy and paste)
To bring something of value to the world? (isn’t this what we all hope to do?)
I suppose we all value different things, but for advent I’m reflecting on Saint Paul’s admonition:
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Philippians 4:8
But, my friends, I’m at an impasse.
Where does opinionated fit in? Where do political rants find their proper place? How is boredom cured? How is fear of man dispelled? Have I been so tainted by the world that I can’t come up with things that are interesting and “good”?
This may all be Lyme-induced brain fog. Who knows …
Or maybe we just have to occasionally question why we do what we do.
One thing I do know is that I’m hungry for beauty, depth and inspiration. There are many blogs I really enjoy (but I want more!). Three that come to mind are:
How do you start with a tiny spark of inspiration and end with a six book series?
I’ve just released THE ONE MY HEART LOVES, the fifth book in THE TENAFLY ROAD SERIES so I thought it would be fun to walk down memory lane.
My writing mission that I didn’t know I had at the start:
To write deep characters with real flaws who, despite it all, find love and redemption. I didn’t know what grace was until I gave it to John Weldon in THE HOUSE ON TENAFLY ROAD.
THE HOUSE ON TENAFLY ROAD: Looking back it would have been impossible to write compassionately about morphine-addicted Civil War veteran John Weldon if I hadn’t fallen in love with a handsome boy in high school who was addicted to drugs. We dated on and off through college. He even looked me up after I was unhappily married with children and he was sober. I hope he still is — though the last time I looked he’d disappeared.
WEARY OFRUNNING: An addict’s road to redemption takes its toll on others. I was curious how John Weldon’s son William would handle adulthood with the hurts he carries. The saddest scene is when William takes his first drink. All of his secret yearnings for Thankful Crenshaw slip into far off second place. Thankful’s brother, Buck Crenshaw carries secret hurts of his own — how else could he be so easily tempted to take out revenge on one of the first black cadets attending West Point?
THE DEW THAT GOES EARLY AWAY is a reference to fleeting love. Buck takes center stage as he wrestles with disillusionment as a new Christian and runs off to a utopian society that promises a fast track to God (and worldly delights). He hardly has time to notice his sister Thankful, still reeling from the loss of her unfaithful fiance, and rushing headlong into another mistake. William’s cousin Lucy takes him to task over his drunken lifestyle but will he change? (You’ll have to read the book to find out :))
FORGET ME NOT is SAD. It just is. I do love how it ends and that’s all I’ll say.
THE ONE MY HEART LOVES: All of my favorite characters are paired off and making a hash of things. Buck is a wreck over his engagement. Thankful is a wreck because she’s jealous. Seeing how Lucy McCullough and William Weldon navigate the Crenshaw minefield satisfies something deep within me and sets us up for the final installment.
THE GRAND UNION starts off in Saratoga Springs, New York at The Grand Union Hotel. Will Buck’s marriage be a grand union? Will he screw up even this? What happens when his wife really gets to know him? I love this couple and want only happiness for them but new troubles await (with Thankful leading the charge) when they arrive back in Englewood to start a family. (Preorder TODAY!)
I love big books about families. How about you? Do you have a favorite literary family? I’m obviously biased.
And more importantly, what’s your mission? I’d love to know in the comments below!