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The Youth Group Canoeing Trip Unintentionally Promotes An Eternal Perspective

17 Sep

By afternoon, the group stopped to make camp
and Paul remained on shore to help as I waded in
up to my neck, longing to make the smooth strokes
of farm boys and big kids who crossed over
talking and laughing as they went.
If he had foreknown the pending doom
of a youth group friend, he might have chosen
to stay home, but he hadn’t, and would see
my head slip under slow brown water,
hear the yell and splutter of the skinny kid
who didn’t really swim. 

I couldn’t fathom my life closing,
but it began, and Paul responded
like a father to keep me from my end. 
By second gasp, he shoved out a canoe,
then came swimming like a man, 
the calm in his voice a buoy.
And still, I tried to kill him. 
We were saved from my demand to live
only when our feet found sand.
          Later, at the fire with the others, Paul’s face said,
          Don’t think you’re the only one returning from the dead.

Father’s Esker

30 Jul

We live on an esker, you used to say,
Tossing rocks out of the garden.
Frost and the tiller brought them up.
You planted peas as early as late April,
The muddy days of sugaring done,
Snow having quit even the woods by then.
Only dying ice remained.

***

Running trails in spring at the reservoir
I find a rocky outcrop still iced over
And kneel beside the thawing, listen
Down among the roots and mosses,
Tell myself to not forget and tell the kids
How a glacial brook deposited the low rocky ridge
Where I grew up and came to know the verse
Of water in the woods. I follow a creek
Down to the lake, but do not risk
The worn and tarnished piece of silver.

***

At the cemetery in summer,
We cut away sod around your marker,
Edge it with gravel from a nearby quarry.
Look at these greens and purples!
Ages those rocks lay hid by the glacier
That ploughed this valley. (I know,
You know all this.) What I mean is,
The earth looks like a different planet when
A steady presence won’t be back forever.

Peanut Butter And The Loss Of A Father

11 Apr

I was given a good dad. His love for me, a great gift. Peanut butter helped me realize this.

I love peanut butter. Always have. As kids, our mom once expressed some concern for my brother and I, “You could develop an allergy if you eat too much”. Thankfully that has yet to happen.

I’m gaining fast on 50 and still eating pb regularly. My favorite is Smucker’s Natural Peanut Butter With Honey (Creamy). I also like the Maranatha peanut butter. Jif is a workhorse, particularly for peanut butter cookies.

I’m a house painter. I pack my own lunch. Most days I take a container of pb&j, dipping it with celery sticks at lunch time. I have high metabolism and if I feel a bit shaky mid-morning, I spread some pb on a granola bar. It works wonders.

A house mate once told me, “John, I used to think eating was just meant to fill the hole, but when you cook I eat because it tastes good!” I was honored. But for too long I fear I have used pb to fill the hole without a true appreciation of its wonder, its sticky sublimity. A year ago something happened that made me appreciate it more: my father died.

Not long after he was gone (a few days, really) I perceived that my perspective on all of life was changed. I was seeing through a different lens. I could not immediately, or even months on, clearly identify the effects, but the world often appeared strange to my eyes (and heart). I feared this change was only for the worse, that sadness would prevail going forward. And that is true, but only part of the truth. Along with sadness I found another sense growing: joy.

Peanut butter isn’t really much to look at. Kind of messy. The natural kind separates, forming an oil slick that has to be stirred back in. Yet it is a gift, nutritious, flavorful, edible with other foods or by itself from a spoon. Kids eat it when they won’t eat the dinner they’ve been offered. And it even fills the hole.

It can’t fill the hole left behind by the loss of a loved one, but it has some power to impart a gratitude for all that is good in this world.

As I visit my mom and brother on the one year anniversary of dad’s death, I am more willing to embrace the sorrows and joys of life. Peanut butter tastes better than ever before. I am sad for our loss, but my heart is inclined toward gratitude for all the ways dad gave of himself, in love.

The Day We Met

23 Nov

you sat like summer in your red pants suit
on the edge of that flabby plaid couch
and, like all of us, did not make sense
of our study in Leviticus.
Sunday breeze roused the sash

and you stepped outside to catch your breath.
I followed, drawn to where
perfume and lipstick lit fires in my flesh. 

We talked and afterward it seemed as if
your long fingers had reached into me
and left prints, like an imp had sneaked
chocolates, then crawled into my heart,
leaving sticky bits and happy remnants.

Calling Hours

13 Oct

He had told me where to buy the car
then helped rivet sheet metal to places
Vermont winters had eaten the ‘73 Pontiac’s

floorboard.  It took two days in November,
our fingers so cold it hurt to get them warm.
All winter the car got me to the store

where we worked unloading trucks,
pricing, stocking, sweeping, mopping,
crushing cardboard boxes in the baler.
 
Tonight, in line at the calling hours
for my father, he meets my wife and children,
says he always knew I’d turn out good.
    
I can’t get over these faces, these people
I haven’t seen in thirty years or more.
They’ve adorned themselves with love

for dad and all the good he ever did.
They tell me stories of dad helping them
or his words they have not wanted to forget

and I am drawn to his reflection in them.  
The rust of death has marred our souls;
tonight there is help to patch the holes.

River Carver

13 Sep

A photograph from about a year before you died
shows you seated on a large stump hands folded,
shoulders slumped. My brother and I had walked
down from Grandma’s with my birthday camera
never meaning to capture how cancer had deprived you
of Helen years back, how grief had seized you

and your workshop had retired into shadow;
the gravers laid on benches among shavings
sharp reminders of your need to carve reliefs.
They had fit the artist’s hands—hands made
to wield them—and formed many works:
the shields of the apostles on oaken doors, the altar table,
the walnut reredos so beloved by the congregation.

Helen had ever been your blade and stone,
her keen spirit comfort to your war wounds,
but the unceasing waters of bereavement
whittled your bones and finally broke them
at the kitchen table where Grandma found you
gouged by your own hand and that dull revolver…

Once, while in the South Pacific, you had mailed
a thank you to my mom for photographs received
of her, a then months-old baby. Declaring love,
you promised her stories, mud pies, and the circus.
Your works deserve prominence, but you
were carving for an audience of folks along the river
in a town that would suffer many floods.
For Carrol Coolidge (1908-1980)

Cousin (In Memoriam)

20 Jul

for Jeffrey Eells, 1968-2001

Eight years of traffic have blurred the accident site
by the time I see your place at the cemetery.  I say
I didn’t know you had been buried close to Grandma
and your sister cries—she knew you like I never did.  

Gentle, easy going, made for downhill skiing,
you meant to finish college, were fluent in sarcasm,
and had a well of sadness you kept covered
with laughter that snapped like dry sticks.  As kids

we laughed like cousins at Grandma’s in the glen.
We played kick the can, took our places at the table,
passed the rolls, heard the stories being told,
then got back in the family cars again.  

    Today your sister is keeping her own well and,
for me, pulls back the lid.            (Did you ever
find someone to let in, someone to draw water with,
someone who could damp your dry pail with rest?)

Here I stand, a tree beside the streams she pours,
planted in the soil of her dreams.
    My bark is rough—see how green her grief!
My roots are scorched—freely is falling her relief.

November Highway

29 Jun

Over radio waves, on a glare November day, a wide sky
transmits Bob Dylan’s boot leg release number eight. 
The buzz of amplifiers rises in the places where he breathes.

He says, Once I had a pretty girl, but she did me wrong. 
Now I’m marching to the city and the road ain’t long. 

I’m driving alone, so I join the sacred melody and the sky
stoops down—to better hear the singer, I tell myself—
as if the buzzing and the breathing are its favorite song.

The Lustering Of Love

29 Jun

Her lips, the wine of garden evenings.
His hands, the bread of their communion.
The conversations of their skin lingering
Unhindered by rejection.  In their fields
Pomegranates, dates, and figs flourished.
Ripe fruit bent branches low for them.

By guile, then, eyes were opened, fields taken;
And they sewed fig leaves, bodies curtained,
Alien.  Yet, they would begin again
To anticipate lilac drifting on the breeze,
To look for all the ways a rose can please.
As one, they would await shame’s retreat.

So arise my beautiful one.  Winter is past,
The rain is gone.  Go early to the fields
With me to see if vines have ripened,
If flowers have opened.  The gardens
Are protected, the figs do well, the harvest
Will be full, the vineyards are in blossom.

Only Dog

24 Jun

As kids, we would put our hands inside
her toothy den; for us the molars were mild,
the incisors unwilling even to gentle dent
the soft butter of our skin.
She chewed a couple of neighborhood pets
and Dad had to put her on a run
until we moved outside of town.
There, with our Shepherd’s perked ears
and pointed nose always close by
my brother and I could explore fields
of curious cows, or trod a tangled wood. 
She would bark for joy in the driveway
when visitors arrived who sometimes
waited in their cars until we settled her.

In her waning days, Dad helped her
to get up steps, lifting her from behind. 
The day came he said, She’s in a lot of pain,
and lifted her into the bed of the pickup. 
We drove to town at dusk and dark
had fallen when the vet came out to us.
As if it had all been a dream,
she was gone
and we had started back toward home.       
        From beside him
there on the bench seat of the truck
I glanced up. Dad focused on the road
and cried.  We never had another dog. 
Dad’s words: It’s too hard.

Timber by Caleb Eells

1 Jun

It was the first day of Spring break, a Saturday.  My brother, my sister, and I were outside doing spring cleaning.  We went inside, tired, and grumpy. We were hungry and wanted lunch.  But when we went inside, we found something quite unexpected. My mom was sitting on the kitchen floor, and was crying hard.  The vacuum we had heard minutes before, wailing like a siren, now sat silently next to her looking mournful. That’s when my dad came in the room with the phone in his hand, and told us Grandpa (on my Dad’s side) had been in an accident, and had died.  I learned later that Grandpa had been out logging (cutting down trees) at another person’s house.  He had been cutting a tree that had entangled itself with another tree, so when the tree he was cutting fell, the top of the other tree came with it, and had hit him in his right temple, just below his helmet.  The person he had been working with said that the blow knocked him down, and then he curled up and didn’t move.  My Dad believes he had died right then. Gone.  In the blink of an eye.

My Grandma, Aunt, Uncle, and Cousins live in Vermont.  My Grandpa used to live there too.  Now he lives in heaven.  And, yes, I’m positive that my Grandpa is in heaven right now.  So anyway, the same day we got the phone call, we hurried to get to the airport and we flew to Vermont, taking one stop to switch planes in Washington D.C.  We arrived in VT around 12:30 and met my Uncle Cam and my cousin, Paul, there.  We drove back to their house without much conversation, and got there at about 1:00.  In the morning, we met their cute German Shepherd puppy, Maya.  Their cat, Daisy, didn’t like the new puppy, and stayed clear of it.  On April 15th, a Tuesday, it snowed about four inches.  My sister and I were happy about the new snow, while our cousins moaned about the fresh snow and how they wanted it to be spring.  My brother couldn’t have cared less about it.  Looking back, I too wish it hadn’t snowed considering the circumstances.  I think Grandma just needed it to be Spring.

The day after the snow, we had the calling hours (a time when people come and give their condolences to the relatives of the deceased person and to see the deceased person in the casket).  When we saw his body in the casket, my Aunt cried a lot.  The lump in my throat , which was as big as a watermelon, didn’t go down till I left the room.  The calling hours lasted about seven hours, but I left with my sister and younger cousin after about three hours.  A kind lady volunteered to take us home.  I noticed that people get a lot nicer when one of your family members die.  I guess it is just courtesy.  Or maybe it’s sympathy. Or maybe even empathy.

The memorial service was the next day, and the weather was sunny.  My Uncle, my Dad, my Mom, and my Aunt all went up and talked.  My Uncle did a wonderful speech, and my Dad read some poems.  One he had written, and one Grandpa had written.  My Aunt and my Mom read some poem-like-writings.  We sang some of Grandpa’s favorite songs, and two different pastors got up and talked.  The memorial service was really marvelous.

We finally left on April 20th,  Easter Sunday.  The flights went well, and we arrived home in time for dinner.  My Dad went up there again last week for the burial because the ground had been too muddy in April.  I’m glad my dad was able to go up again.  He was able to help with the work at Grandma’s house, and he was also there to comfort her. We will be going up to VT again in the Summer.  I will not be seeing my Grandpa ever again in VT, or even on Earth.  But I will see him later, in heaven.

by Caleb, age 12

Beautiful girl

26 Jan

you draw my eyes and I anticipate.
Like on a starlit night, my gaze
rises to your skies and remains.

When I stay too late in town,
full of cares, I remember you.
Street light and cityscape are fair,

but your light is higher, and yours
a darker country.  So take me
where flame will be folded into fire. 

Let us lie close.  Let us make
a space for stars at the window;
they are drawn by our embrace.

Hidden

5 Jan

Ready or not, the seeker says.
    There’s only so many holes to go down
in this house, but they run to them again
when the count begins.

Who crawls from the laundry heap
or out beneath the bed is musty, dust
and silliness, contented to be found,
or else lodging complaint
if the count was too quick.

They pull my hand, demand, Count loud!
You’re it!  Oak floors bounce and shake,
then all sounds whisper into secrets. 

I raise my voice to reckon time
before ready or not and here I come.
I go slow, but you’d never guess
the way they’ve flown, like ghosts,
behind doors and into backs of closets.

Then I search the rooms of our home;
I seek their faces,
and the light that would be
found in darkened places.

Teller

28 Dec

In books he read aloud, my father uttered charms.
Brave Sneelock, the Heffalump, farmers Boggis, Bean, and Bunce,
the characters by whom he cast a spell.
As a boy, listening, I never guessed an author
and barely parsed the teller from the tale;
all the earth and sky was in the telling—and didn’t fail.

Who told me stories first my heart is welded to
with sentences, is anchored to, as truth is to a word.
His voice turned all to flint and fire,
or else so leaf and green as to be giddy.

Mom says he still reads to her—I can see him in his chair:
lamplight on furrowed brow and legs crossed.
The sun is low; the sky in rows of ruddy men
is marching down to greet him and he begins.
His gift is words—words full of rooms
in which the wonderment of telling is the end.

Big Deal (For Nathan)

5 Apr

At thirteen, your body is writing mysteries:
fierce storms, blown fuses, dark basements.
To make themselves known, bones lengthen
beneath the pliant soil of your skin.

Tendons and muscles groan extension
to and from—a boy is gaining on manhood,
a burning engine revs and roars,
a locomotive is aiming for its destination.

As successive suns relight your lantern,
welcome them.  Dream, observe, apprehend,
trim the wick of ambition, pour the oil
of expectation—much good awaits you son!

When unsettled by faults and frailties,
or stuttered by the failure of a friend,
when the paper world is crumpling, remember,
the good King has you in his hand;

he is your shelter, find shade in him.  
He built your heart and lungs, he holds
your hope and future—silly spasms,
distractions, even glum reflections

(be they rare or common) are companions,
acknowledge them and carry on.  
Flesh is wanting, faith will be tested,
but you will never be forsaken.

You have departed, have left the station,
are merging with the tracks of men.
Let it come, and attend these days.
Sweet boy, you have begun to be a man.

Friends And Hard Won Enemies

9 Apr

Hard work making enemies.  Slackers steal and cheat
And make much of their apathy, but fail to garner hate.

For surefire antagonists, look at whom you address.
Listen till they’re human, consider them—digest.     

Learn to spar-sing and wrestle-dance.  Go bury your good deeds
And mock your own success.  Gather the pieces for a bridge.  

Don’t quit!  Betrayers can’t resist.  Those who would despise you
or dismiss will set their face against you like a fist.  

But making friends is a cinch!  Find someone who shares your fits,
Together, take aim…steady…Bang!  Fast you will remain.

Of course, that friend may be honey that turns bitter in the belly.  
A true friend will always be your potential hard won enemy.

Dad’s Journal, Saturday January 1st

7 Jan

Arose, made coffee, oatmeal, and a list.
Hugged and kissed spouse, and prayed.
Discussed a canoe, a massage—a birthday.
Chased, regained, attempted to retain
next door neighbor’s pet, crazy.
Climbed up and down attic staircase,
then folded stairs away.

Exercised paintbrush on desktop
and taught third grader a bit
about how to paint.  Made a lap:
dressed toddler in pink boots
and green shirt.  Went out to help
with fifth grade science experiment
before it rained—got damp anyway.

Brushed and rolled here and there.
Watched fifth grader play computer game.
Watched Popeye and the gang.
Cleaned up for dinner.  Sat down
with family and ate.  Beheld faces,
took up the graces, read books…
then wrote, and hit the hay.

Let A Rose

25 Nov

buttons and rose

Let a rose be all things beautiful and true; let the rain be you.
Let a button be forbearance; let your blouse
be faded blue. 
Let a shoelace be repentance;
let me stop and tie my shoe.
Let a rose be all things beautiful and true.

Let a rose be all things beautiful and true; let a sigh be you.
Let a button be forgiveness; let your fingers
push it through. 
Let a shoelace be a promise;
let me double knot my shoe.
Let a rose be all things beautiful and true.

Three words are stuck

14 Nov

when I stand by you in the lot at the end of the night.
Oh, to be the man who need not say it right,

but the creases of my speech are neat.
     Three words could put wrinkles in the sheets,

could put some spice in the cream of wheat—
then the flavor would release;

then you’d taste my feast and want more—
but I fumble my keys; I reach for the car door

and lift.  My heart revs, as if about to race,
but three words are stuck in this parking space.

Self Portait In Pencil by Caleb Eells

Self portrait in pencil by Caleb Eells

Elephant

27 Oct

The elephant, the thick-heavy wrinkle,
Shows no movement.  
He stands in the room like a defendant.
Like old boots in a box, he may not walk again.  

I’d like to read, or watch TV, but there he is.  
The crushed sofa, the mangled love seat—
There’s no place to be.  
So, busily, we make the elephant a pet.

Busily, busily we ignore and he remains.  
Once, I reach around him.
Twice, you try to find me and (I know)
There’s almost-absolutely-no-one there.  

The ghost of my shadow tells you
To not worry the beast,
To not even think of mice or make a move
That might disrupt the elephanty peace.  

And though we want to forgive,
We cannot forget HIM.  
So, we go on tiptoe while he stands there:
A sad-sturdy brow and four enormous feet.

Disagreement

2 Sep

These bricks, in our hands,
rise up like storms to wreck our plans
on disagreement—to lay up, or pull down?  
These mortar joints and tools
break the arms of worker-fools.
For us, there is no harbor in this town.

If bricks could attest,
They’d raise a cairn to our unrest;
This post would tell of work yet to be done.
It can only point the way
back to where we quit the fray.
For us, there is no haven from the sun.

These bricks build choices;
they raise questions without voices.
The answers are chisels on a stone.
Bricks can compromise;
they won’t bruise or get black eyes!
For us, deals are made of flesh and bone.

These bricks will destroy—
rise up like lonely in a boy—
while, ignorant, I try to keep my life.
We can build—we can rise,
there is time to gain the prize.
For us, the shelter stone is in the strife.

Shepherds Of The Street

31 Mar

The shepherds of the street who pass our house
each day do not suppose they go their way for me.
By gentle steps, one or two move past our place.

At times, a posse walks up to the store
to meet some friends or buy a pack of smokes

and as they go, they talk to me if I am there
and rise above my fear to catch their eye.
Or I may give a Hey, to my surprise.

I am sure I never have that much to say,
but when we speak—or nod our heads to make a sign,
or pound our fists to greet, or even when,

from in the house, I hear them on their way—
I find their presence to be not unlike a compass.

The shepherds of the street do not suppose
they go for me, but, steady, move their feet
south by southwest or else north by northeast.

Everything Is Broken by Bob Dylan

29 Dec

Broken lines, broken strings,
Broken threads, broken springs,
Broken idols, broken heads,
People sleeping in broken beds.
Ain’t no use jiving
Ain’t no use joking
Everything is broken.

Broken bottles, broken plates,
Broken switches, broken gates,
Broken dishes, broken parts,
Streets are filled with broken hearts.
Broken words never meant to be spoken,
Everything is broken.

Seems like every time you stop and turn around
Something else just hit the ground

Broken cutters, broken saws,
Broken buckles, broken laws,
Broken bodies, broken bones,
Broken voices on broken phones.
Take a deep breath, feel like you’re chokin’,
Everything is broken.

Every time you leave and go off someplace
Things fall to pieces in my face

Broken hands on broken ploughs,
Broken treaties, broken vows,
Broken pipes, broken tools,
People bending broken rules.
Hound dog howling, bull frog croaking,
Everything is broken.

Tapestry

25 Dec

photo by Denton Harryman of GreenvilleDailyPhoto.com

Answered prayer, she says, you are an answer.
Billiard balls dance behind plate glass.
Cue sticks aim, wave, conduct our conversation.
Like over-sized batons they signal us to begin.

Friendly strangers, we lay out the makings
for a tapestry—words, expressions.  We weave
answers and questions.  A weft thread
beneath the warp rises to the pattern.

With longing, each one eyes the other
standing there.  Each looks for a close weave,
for a familiar image to appear amidst the intricacies,
beneath the lighted Corner Pocket sign.

Our eager, wanton prayers fly quickly, brightly,
like a tight rack of balls at the break.
Like many lavish threads, they emerge from below,
pressing against each other to form a whole.

to see more of Denton Harryman’s photography visit http://GreenvilleDailyPhoto.com


Broken

10 Nov

cracked_glass man on knees

Between us, on a tabletop of glass, a working hand
becomes a hammer.  Blood does not spill, it boils.  

Shards lament the ways we will not mend, and how
the heart, like a fractal, repeats a pattern of breaks

and splits when magnified.  My heart shoves blood
along a crooked line until I heed the rattle-crack

and attend the bang of anger.  The embittered rackets
rise until the broken pieces lay at rest between us.
 
 

 

 

 

Amid Old Friends

31 Oct

Amid old friends, a working hand
comes down hard. Fear falls on the land
when a fist becomes a hammer,
a glass tabletop to shatter.
A man, afraid, will take a stand

when, not according to his plan,
he receives a humble brand
and is loath to drop the matter
amid old friends.

Shards sing out how rage will expand
into violence, will demand,
with a loud rattle of anger
and a bang of bad behavior,
that we heed a fool’s reprimand
amid old friends.

The Violence Bearer

30 Oct

3.  The Violence Bearer

To recap, there is no virtue in me that changed the meaning of violence in my life.  But there is Jesus, who was subjected (in humble reliance on his Father’s goodness and loving-kindness) to the collective brutality of every sin.  On the cross He absorbed every violence that ever was, and ever would be.  By doing this he enabled the forgiveness of every sin (past, present, and future) for everyone who would call on him for forgiveness.

After all, every violation of God’s good law is ultimately against God and his son Jesus (and the Holy Spirit).  The historical figure of King David makes this very clear in his response to the prophet Nathan’s rebuke of him for killing Uriah and taking Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba.  (Continue…)

Elegy For An Uncle

30 Oct

Your second death, this.  The first you cheated—  
buried alive, then resurrected to describe
paralysis beneath a cave-in.

They dug you out.  But no hands reach you now;
your story is complete.  The tumor pressed you
down in ways no one could defeat

and I despise it.  You would have wanted
to assure me that you’re in a better place.
And I want that for you.  But here,

I fight the enemy of your absence.
I can’t get another handshake or hardy laugh.
There is no father, no husband,

no uncle who donned an apron and cooked
chicken halves on a giant barbecue
he had designed and welded,

no quick joke or story to bring a smile,
no soft voice—the sound of a Vermonter—asking,
Hey there, how you doin’?

I have an early memory: you on Grandma’s sofa
snoring loud.  I am only five or six
and a bit afraid of the great rasp.  

Now, remembering it, I hurt—God gave you
for my Uncle, I’ve known love from you, I miss you—
but I’m willing for the hurt to be good news.

                (for Stephen A. Kittredge, 1945-2009)

The Denial Of Violence

27 Oct

2.  The Denial Of Violence

It was in a seminary lecture on violence that God spoke, quietly and clearly, “John, violence is a problem for you.  You need some help.”  I went to my professor after class and told him about some of my failures.  Later, we met and he told me to participate in an anger management group and other counseling if I wanted to continue taking classes at that school.

I was embarrassed and alarmed again.  But I followed his recommendation and began to see how my angry, vengeful violence could be changed; that, in fact, the very meaning of my violence could be changed.  (continue)

Hot Water

27 Dec

Under house. Crawl
Space. Three days.
Water heater. Anger.

Plastic pipe. C-ment.
Sore back. Stiff neck.
Grave glare.

Eight-year-old. Small
Hands. Unafraid.
Chips in. Questions.

Satisfied. Crawls out.
My face. Turnabout.
Wide grin.