I’m thankful for tails that wag for no apparent reason, pumpkin pies and Kool Whip, star – set sky before first light, old people who can still sing; I’m thankful for the first cup of morning coffee, soft candle light in dark rooms, symphonies of color in slow motion sunsets, the sharing of stories, and those who know how to mindfully listen; I’m thankful for rocky trails and majestic canopies, clean crisp air, early morning quiet times, printed words on pages; I’m thankful for art, music, movement, drama, and those who’ve become one with their craft; I’m thankful for athletes who are poetry in motion, scientists who seek answers, sages who seem tethered to the truth; I’m thankful for sight, hearing, touch, taste, and all means of interacting with the world; I’m thankful for churches and cemeteries, libraries and museums, stadiums and shacks, glassy lakes and swamp bottoms; I’m thankful for elders who have found their evergreen and youth who have touched their ancient souls; I’m thankful for voices in choirs that have become one instrument, for the rumbling bass of organ pipes, for light through stained glass and steeples rising above towns, for friends who harmonize; I’m thankful for those who take their timbers to build bridges instead of walls, those who kneel with ones who kneel and rise with ones who rise, those who become the change they want to see, those with passion for a true cause, those whose inner “yes” is louder that any outer “no,” those who quietly and steadfastly place one foot in front of the other on the path that seems right to them, those who fan the flames of the spirit wherever they are perceived, rather than dousing them; I’m thankful for all who walk in the open fields of mercy, those who have known such love that they can risk loving, too, those who are brave enough to have compassion on themselves as well as others, those who have found the gift of connection with themselves, with others, and with God, those who remember ones who have forgotten themselves; I’m thankful for those in prisons, halfway houses and hospitals that can still sing and pray, and those that sing and pray with them; I’m thankful for the addicts who are sober and those who want to be, for the healers and would-be-healers, for the self-givers and the feeders, for the home-builders and the ministers, for the teachers and the life-long learners, for the humble leaders and the caregivers, for the powerful who know the strength of gratitude, for the red and black words on bible pages that echo in dark nights of the soul; I’m thankful for fireplaces and rocking chairs, for blessings and reminiscence, for old pictures and family stories, for the way light looks next to shadows or behind leaves or bending through beveled glass, for hardwood grains and branches on a blue sky; I’m thankful for little girls who love their Dads and wives who love their husbands, for families who forgive and forbear, for friends who hold up mirrors to remind you who you are, for those who always see the true self and lead you back there when you’re lost, for the 23rd Psalm and the Beatitudes; I’m thankful for times when letting go leads to new beginnings, for beauty and life and water in dead places, for the hope that lies inherent; and most of all, I’m thankful for the Love that makes all darkness light, that leaves a place for me when I’ve shut myself away, that makes all of us one at the center of our being, that is always there to hold and make us safe, that ever looks at us with kind eyes and gentle smiles, that will never leave us lonely or forgotten, that wipes every tear and lightens every load, that keeps us at peace until we finally find our way home.
Today, I saw something beautiful.
People gathered, happily seeing each other.
There were no expectations.
No regrets. There was only now.
And now was to be lived.
Some were young. Some, old.
Who knew which?
They spoke the same joys, fears.
Skipped through the same grass.
Petted the same puppies.
Picked the same flowers.
Loved the same loves.
Spontaneity stole the show.
Gaps were bridged.
Differences honored, accepted.
Each took a hand.
All came home.
(“The Water Garden Under the Earth” – art by Barbara, Bringing Art to Life participant)
I have a place. One of many, really. But alone among them.
There are wetlands. And giant old-growth oaks. Narrow, rutted roads with skinny pine walls. Brambles and untangled clearings. Reeds and upturned trees, with roots rising as centerpieces from swamp-set tables.
Life brims there in a thousand expressions from well-watered fertility. Lungs of the land exhale myriad plant forms, as varied as the colors of a dew drop at dawn. Hawks and songbirds flit and soar. Sloughs swim with bream, bass, crappie, catfish, carp, and that queer, dinosaurian creature called the bowfin.
At every trail turn, one is struck by infinite, multitudinous life.
Then came this drought of 2016. The last raindrop fell on that primal garden 54 days ago. The sourceless waters receded, exposing the gills of swamp bottom to air they were never meant to breath.
On a recent hike, I explored parts of the swamp I’d not been able to reach in the past, one of the uplifts of this dry time. The site was frankly awe-inspiring and soul-wilting all at once. Mammoth tree trunks with elaborate, gnarled root networks jutted out from newly-exposed banks. Geometric puzzle pieces made the nearly-parched swamp beds look like X-rays of tectonic plates snapped from satellite lenses. The leaf-carpeted slough floors popped and crackled unnaturally beneath each footstep.
Surprised, I stumbled upon a few small pools skimmed with green algae on top. The vibration of my approaching steps aroused fish that had been trapped inside those shrinking sloughs. This remnant stirred and swirled, turning to mud gray the emerald facade.
Trekking a bit further, I came upon an expansive bed several acres across, the deeper parts of which still contained water. I began to feel the tragedy of this scene. The trapped fish were no more than 100 yards from freedom, a source of water to sustain and nourish their waning existence. I knew couldn’t carry them through the swamp with my bare hands, even in its filtered state. So, I must soon return with a net and a cooler on a swamp search and rescue mission.
Life called. Work. Duty. Responsibility. I couldn’t get out there in the dark.
Still, no rain came.
Returning a few mornings later with a net, basin and cooler, I trudged briskly down the trail. Stopping by the only standing waters with any depth, I dipped out enough to half-fill a cooler and potentially sustain the fish in route to freedom, and hurried to the algae-draped pools.
Nothing quickened. Nothing changed colors. Nothing felt vibrations. Nothing needed saving now. The shrunken pools stayed as green as an emerald isle.
I stood there, in the only arid swamp on earth, alone, one creature under God, thinking of the water bottle I hadn’t even finished still sitting in my truck.
I sat on a log and prayed. Interrupted by a rising chorus of birds of many different kinds, I looked out across the face of this land that had been newly exposed to the world. And I felt a great hovering Presence there, calling forth something that couldn’t be seen, but that I knew was being lifted out of that porous, parched earth. My own dry ground felt the vibrations of it. Then my soul quickened a bit, and stirred.
On the way back through shadowed pine thickets and acorn-implanted foot paths, I pondered lessons to be remembered, to be learned anew. “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” from Ben Franklin. “Trust in God, and lean not on your own understanding,” from the book of Proverbs. “Behold, I make all things new,” from the Revelation of John on the Isle of Patmos. “There Shall Be Showers of Blessing,” from an old church hymnal. “Streams in The Desert,” by Charles Cowman. Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”
Mindful of my own mortality, my own thirst, my own dead places as I headed home that day, I mourned for losses. Yet I knew – in a deeply important way, I knew – that what had mattered most was the urging that had been stirred inside me. The desire. The dance. The movement from the well of my life to water thirsting lives outside of myself. Vibrations had shaken my soul to action. Footsteps had been felt beside the ever-greening pools. And all of it had been given. Imparted. Not of myself arising. Yet, in some way, of myself subsisting.
Deeply, then, I knew: The One who makes these footsteps always comes in time to save.
(Inspired by Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”)
For Papa, and in memory of Mr. Cohen
I’ve heard you had a secret art,
an exhibition of the heart
that pleased the Lord
as He could see right through ya’.
But did you know before the spell,
the cruel curse (a living Hell)
that in your soul you’d painted “Hallelujah?”
We saw the righteous way you stood
and showed your marbled grain of wood
to all who took a hallowed place next to ya’.
But even we who knew you well
could not imagine or foretell
that in your heart was painted “Hallelujah.”
The devastation of your mind
and shattered mem’ries left behind
compelled the ones who cared to come rescue ya’.
Then strangely, through an opened door
an artist saw your spirit soar
and helped the hand to paint its “Hallelujah.”
Such beauty we had never known,
created by your hands alone,
had power to bring dignity back to ya’.
And though we sometimes saw you smile
we knew the hurt within the trial
had made your art a broken “Hallelujah.”
And now that you have flown away
to where we’ll meet again someday
and stand in awe of One who always knew ya’,
in words and art you’ve left behind
those shattered pieces of the mind,
composing us a healing “Hallelujah”.
“I did my best (it wasn’t much),
I couldn’t think, so I tried to touch.
I told the truth; I didn’t come to fool ya’.
And even though it all went wrong,
I stand before the Lord of Song
with nothing on my tongue but ‘Hallelujah!’
(In memory of Michael Joseph Powell, and in honor of Lynda Everman)
“I’m proud of you,”
said a white-haired man
skipping rocks on the lake.
“Thank you, sir. But, do you know me?”
“Sure I do. I saw your face in the clouds
a little while ago, or now, or every day to come.”
“I was there, all right. Looking out. Looking up.
It was…it is so beautiful. So fulfilling.
An Alpha – Omega moment.
I saw forever turn to blue;
but sir, I saw no one else.”
“Ah. Well, I was here, by the lake.
Looking at the blue-sky water.
And I saw you, reflected in triumph.
Reaching up with your hands.
You wanted blue arms to hold you there,
over top of all this good earth.
Spirits suspended like a chord.
So, you could finally see.
And me? Well, I felt a smile ripple inside,
as I stooped for a smooth skipping stone.
You see, once I reached for the blue sky, too.
Reached, and found my wings.
They’d been there all the time, I know.
But that one day, I reached from a deep enough place
to finally find them. And oh, what a moment it was.
I was so proud that day.
Now, do you understand
why I’m also proud of you?”
“Yes, sir. Yes, I think I do.”
Early one brittle fall morning, I stopped on a steep trail, caught suddenly by the sun’s angle on the lake below, and on the intervening leaves. As compelling as was movement, it seemed I must be still and take this moment in.
The water in the distance was bright, almost too luminous to look at full on, creating a backdrop that provided contrast for leaves of maple, white oak, hickory and wild magnolia clamoring for first place in a race for my retina.
Few sights are as stirring as fall leaves in full color with the sun behind them. I’m always drawn to these, but that day things were different. Some message was being communicated that day that I had not heard before, some fresh revelation. It had a lot to do with being still, being fully present. Perhaps the clarity of the atmosphere, the water, the gentle wind dancing through the limbs; perhaps a certain emptiness or silence in me met this chorus of color and light that polished the floor of my soul with streaming stained glass rays.
What happened as I stood there, taking in this rapturous moment of communication, beauty and belonging, was that I entered a sanctuary of lights and colors; I stepped into the panes of glass, but was not confined within then. I became a white oak leaf with the light behind. There was no time here, no boundaries or dimensions; there was only color, light, earth, water and wind…
Alpha and Omega.
A multidimensional shimmering presence seemed to inhabit my vision, my surroundings, my body and my soul. I must reemphasize that this was boundaryless, floating, rising and penetrating. It was to be beheld but not possessed. It was an aesthetic experience, with no desire to possess the mountaintop. It was as if the mountaintop possessed me. I was held there, not against my will. But willed to live completely in the center of the now. I looked out at life from a place that was the core of all of it – outside, inside, around and through – as a cool, sweet leafy wind whistled through my limbs.
How long this lasted, I can’t say. Time kept recreating itself, rising from the leaf – layered ground like sun off the facets of a gem. Why did I move on? I’m not sure. I simply sensed it was time to walk on up the trail. But I felt no loss in leaving.
Had I shed something of myself in that spot? What had been exchanged? I felt there had been a transaction, but all had come out on the gain.
Looking back, I know that I had met the Persons Three there, in a house not made with hands, as a soft chorus of fall pastels led my soul to dance on feet that stood completely still.
My grandfather, Lester E. Potts, Sr, who died when I was 10 years old, was my best childhood friend. We shared a special bond forged over Sunday afternoon cedar-shaded stories and Wednesday morning fishing adventures. “Let’s throw a party,” he would say, and proceed to make a little celebration out of a mundane moment of our relationship. There was a good bit of quiet time with Big Daddy (as I called him). Or, it seemed that way to me. But there was a lot of communication, all the same.
Shortly before Easter, 1976, Big Daddy told us about a spell he had experienced while walking down the side walk in front of his home. “I froze, couldn’t move for a minute.” I remember Dad suggesting that he seek medical attention, something he rarely did (Rubbing alcohol had been his only medication). This led to a diagnosis of TIA, and a hospital admission for cerebral arteriography to look for blockages that could lead to stroke.
I remember with intense clarity what happened in Big Daddy’s hospital room that night after the arteriogram. Somewhat agitated and appearing afraid (I had never known him to be this way) he began to try to tell us what the experience of the arteriogram had been like for him. But he struggled to get his words out, to express his thoughts. He seemed frustrated by this, and the fear showed more clearly in his eyes. Obviously, he had sustained a stroke during the procedure, my parents later told me. But right then, all I knew was that my Big Daddy was scared, and I needed to help.
I remember looking at him with compassion that his old spirit was pulling out of me. I wanted to help him find the words he was groping for, so that he could let us know how the experience had felt for him. He needed us to know, and he was growing more and more angst-ridden with each broken phrase, babbling farther and farther from language we could understand.
He appeared to be giving up in exasperation. Then he turned and looked directly into my eyes. I feel I will never forget this moment that happened 40 years ago. All the relational intensity of our times together seemed to well up right then, and he said three words. As he said them, a peace seemed to come over him. “Danny Boy knows.” And then he leaned back in his bed.
He needed someone to understand. He needed communication, communion. Someone to validate his anxiety, to know what he had felt. To hold his hand and comfort him. He needed his 10-year-old fishing buddy by his side. And I was there because he loved me, and I loved him.
Brain cells had been disconnected from each other. Spirits had not.
Yes, sir. Danny boy knows.
And I hope I always will.