Tag Archives: grief

Finding Poetry

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Dear lovers and writers of poetryThere’s nothing for you here today, nothing at all, except the first mewling cries of someone who is trying to understand why and how poetry is speaking to me even though I hardly understand a word. Read on at your own risk.

For everyone else: This is a short story that is a love letter to a friend I have lost and found.

I thought I wanted to raid poetry for its words. Poetry contains a well of words (see? there’s a metaphor already, though not a very good one since it isn’t novel; the best metaphors link unlike things) that I thought might inspire me as I attempt to write memoir.

I picked up Louise Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night, a dreamy collection of poems that the book cover says are meant to tell a single story, although it’s not like any story I’ve ever read. That said, I couldn’t put it down and I can’t stop thinking about it.

I read this scene from the title poem about sharing a room with a brother in a candlelit room at night:

[Note: WordPress is deleting the spaces between stanzas, so I put a “/” where a space should follow]

I was alone with my brother;

we lay in the dark, breathing together,

the deepest intimacy./

It had occurred to me that all human beings are divided

into those who wish to move forward

and those who wish to go back.

Or, you could say, those who wish to keep moving

and those who want to be stopped in their tracks

as by the blazing sword.”

So much unspoken mystery as Glück floats through her dream-night. I confess to feeling pretty lost but I keep thinking about the symbols she strews along her way. There is something here, I thought, more than words. Something that is affecting me.

I looked for answers in Edward Hirsch’s “How To Read A Poem and Fall In Love With Poetry.” And I read this: “Reading poetry is for me an act of the most immense intimacy, of what the poem finds in me. It activates my secret world, commands my inner life. I cannot get access to that inner life any other way than through the power of the words themselves. The words pressure me into a response, and the rhythm of the poem carries me to another plane of time, outside of time.”

Glück took me somewhere with her when she wrote of “the blazing sword,” the kind of metaphor that Hirsch calls “a concealed invitation,” which invites the reader to figure it out. Throughout her poem there are such references to the sword in the stone, and I’ll admit I find them a puzzle. Is the narrator the heir? The heir to memory? I’ll have to get one of my poet friends to explain it to me.

But besides the riddle, I was struck by Hirsch’s description of poetry’s ability to give him access to an inner life. I understood what he meant. I don’t always “get” poetry, but something in my shifts when I read some of it. The words and their rhythms go to a place within me that is beyond words, beyond logic. To a place of longing, of pure feeling, of community, of prayer.

And now I will give you a short story.

Yesterday I spent time with a dear friend who used to be my boss. In the professional world, she was my first true teacher and mentor. The place she holds in my heart cannot be filled by another. Just a couple of years older than me, she has been set upon by a series of strokes that the doctors don’t seem to understand. The smartest woman I’ve ever met is now much different. I won’t go into the details. Her brain is like a bog, with bits of organic material occasionally floating to the top. Thinking is hard. Putting names on things is impossible.

But feeling, feeling is still there. So much love it can light up her face.

So I decided to read her poetry. She cannot name images, but I wondered if words could form images in her mind, pictures that would bring her joy. I read from Mary Oliver’s “Why I Wake Early,” a book that I have taken to bedsides and even deathbeds.

The fourth poem that I read to her, I think, was “Peonies.” My friend closed her eyes when she listened and I remembered that was her pose of reflection. When she wanted to listen deeply with her head and heart she would press her eyes shut so that the only thing that existed was what poured into her ears. She always heard what one said, but she listened for the meaning underlying the words, tipped off by the telltale tone of voice, the choice of words. This is what she did yesterday: she tilted her chin down and her lashes floated onto her cheeks.

Poetry is a soul-making activity, Hirsch says. I wrote this poem, as terrible as a poet would find it, because I can’t seem to capture in prose my confusing stew of feelings: the deep grief I feel for the loss of my old friend, and the momentary joy we found together reading of peonies. Thank you, Mary Oliver, wherever you are, for the gift of that moment.

My old friend is someone new

I can’t say a stranger because she is familiar

diminished to some but polished to my eye,

silky of spirit./

Strokes like ordnance have reordered her brain.

Like a prize fighter, her husband says:

Too many hits to the head./

So we read of wild iris and humble sunflowers

But it was the peonies that swayed her

Lacy pools, white and pink./

She closed her eyes, lashes dancing

As we read of green fists opening, black ants tunneling

The words watered the parched patches in her soul./

When the poem ended we read it again

Delighted, her face sparkled

And then we were silent, two wet souls./

Shall I read more, I asked?

Sometimes you should let it sit, she said.

So we sat in the sunshine

Old and new friends.


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Dad and Midge

Dad and Midge

I’ve finally started writing about my mother. That’s been hard for me and the reasons are a little complicated. It isn’t just that she died fifteen years ago — just about anyone who’s lost a loved one will tell you that time doesn’t seem to follow the rules when it comes to grief; it’s that for much of my life we were locked in a push-me-pull-you mother-daughter battle.

I’m not talking about fighting. (Although yes, we did that, oh boy did we…) I’m talking about what I wanted from my mother that she did not have the capacity to give. 

Before I was born, I had a sister who died of leukemia, three months short of her fourth birthday. Until about the age of two, her pictures were indistinguishable from mine. One of my earliest memories is of my mother standing by the kitchen sink doing dishes. She turned and looked toward me but I had the feeling she wasn’t really seeing me. And she was crying, something I never saw my mother do. I asked her why, and she told me she was thinking about my sister. Then she dried her eyes and finished the dishes.

This is an excerpt from what I wrote this week:

Was Midge’s death why my mother kept me at arms’ length? Did she wall off part of herself ? I wanted nothing more than to be with her, to drink her in, to devour her. I wanted to feel her inside me, to feel full to the point of stuffed, to finally feel satisfied. I wanted more of her than she could give. The more I clung, the more she pulled away. She would pick me up and hold me, I know she did, but only for a few minutes. It was never enough. Finally she would say, “Stop hanging on me.” She sloughed me off.

On Thursday night, I attended a book signing by a local Santa Cruz psychotherapist and book author, Alexandra Kennedy. She introduced an idea I’ve never heard before: generational grief. When grief does not heal, when it is stuffed down and sealed up, the old hurts do not dissolve. Neither does the love. Alexandra suggests that grief, and love, can be passed down through generations. She wrote:

Perhaps before you were born, your mother or grandmother lost a child whom she never fully grieved; perhaps your family in past generations experienced a significant loss or trauma that was never healed. When this generational grief surfaces, it is your work to be the sanctuary to simply embrace the surge of feelings as they emerge, to pay attention to any images that come to mind, and to listen closely to your dreams for guidance.

I realize, now, how the pattern I learned from my mother carried into the next generation, affected my mothering. 

My father, in his last years, revisited many old wounds — the love and acceptance he never felt from his father, the loss of Midge, the loss of Mom. When he died, he had no unfinished business. I can’t say the same for my mother, since dementia stripped away her memory, and lung cancer took care of the rest.

Maybe if falls to me, now, to heal — for her, for me, and for the generations to come.


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Break In


One kick to the door was all it took. My first thought when I saw the splintered door frame was: thank God my son wasn’t home; he would have slept through the noise. The CSI detective showed me how they entered by shining her light down the surface of the front door: the clear print of a boot. Waffle stompers we called them in college. “That’s exactly where you kick,” she said.

The thieves who came in the night took their time, dumping drawers, opening cabinets and sorting through my jewel boxes. Things were strewn throughout the house. A Mexican five peso bill from my husband’s bathroom drawer was next to the dining room curtain. A stained pillow was lying next to it.

I thought (with some satisfaction) that it couldn’t have been a very gratifying haul for them. I keep the little good jewelry I have in a safety deposit box. The burglars went to the trouble of removing two wall-hung TVs. The TVs were eight years old and worthless. They took a huge silver plate serving tray that I’ve never used; new “princess” trays sell online for about $75.00. No prints, the detective said, they even used a new kind of glove that left no smudges. They were pros.

I thought (with some relief) that they didn’t break anything. The old Chinese tea caddy that I use for a jewel box was on the floor, drawers emptied but undamaged. They could have vandalized things just for the hell of it, dumped condiments from the refrigerator, graffitied the walls.

I thought (with effort) that it was just stuff. While rushing home, my friend called with the news that her husband had just passed away. I had been with her most of the week while he lay “actively dying.” For eight days, he had been unable to take in liquids. For seven days, he had been in a hospital bed, lying in that state that hospice calls “transition.” I remember “transition” from giving birth; with this version there’s no happy ending.

After CSI left, I went to see my friend, then came home and fell asleep. I awakened some time later. I thought I heard a thump through my husband’s open window. Had someone hopped the fence? I listened, willed myself awake. No sound, not even crickets. Had the crickets been startled into silence?

I drifted. The image of my grandmother’s pendant watch floated before me. My mother’s mother – I called her Nana — died when I was five. I entered her bedroom after my afternoon nap, expecting to find her resting, too. I couldn’t awaken her. My mother hurried me out of her room while she called our neighbor the doctor. Nana had always been a gentle presence. I remember her softly curled gray hair. Her soft lap. Everything about her was soft. The edges of her frameless glasses caught the light and sparkled around her eyes. I have two things that were hers. Correction: had. I unconsciously looked toward my dresser for one when I approached my bedroom after the break in: my grandmother’s jar of potpourri. It was untouched — a white porcelain jar painted with a delicate pink chrysanthemum, a red-and-white morning glory and a tuxedoed magpie. I lifted the lid and inhaled. The scent of summer roses wafted across sixty years. I didn’t think about her watch then, the round ball with tiny face. It was enameled with tiny pink flowers against a turquoise background. Throughout my childhood, when I stood by my mother as she chose accessories for an evening out, I took it out of her jewel box and let the links trickle into my hand before I dropped the cool globe into my palm. When my daughter was young, she would hold it and ask me to tell her about my Nana. The watch would have gone to her.

My nights are still like this: I fall asleep reading and rouse with the memory of something I will miss. A sterling spoon engraved “Ella’s baby.” That was my Nana. The gold butterfly necklace my father gave me. My mother’s silver earrings with the dangling bells that tinkled when she moved her head. The things that connected me to those who came before.

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What Will Happen To Me?


What will happen to me?

           My father often asked this question. Like answering a child who wonders where babies come from, I gave the simplest answer. I knew that money had been a concern of my father’s for as long as I could remember, so I summarized his financial position and told him he did not need to worry. I even went so far as to write out a statement of his monthly income and expenses for him to carry in his breast pocket. For a while, that was enough.

After a time, his question what will happen to me took on a different tenor. He wanted to know how he would die and how he would be cared for. He was the man who had figured out how to load a battle ship (put in last the things you need first). He thought in scenarios. What was the plan, he wanted to know. But this wasn’t a briefing. He was asking me, his daughter, to acknowledge his death and dying. How to even talk about it? Did he want reassurance – don’t worry, Dad, we’ll take care of you – or did he want a contingency plan? Should I use the word “death” or something sanitized: when the time comes? Did we really have to talk about this? I told him the truth: that I didn’t know what would happen. He could have “the big one” and die suddenly, felled by the heart disease that had plagued him since he was forty-six. He could fall and have to go to the hospital, in which case we would get him home to my house as quickly as possible. Or he could slowly lose ground, in which case he would be at my house with hospice. Whatever happens, Dad, we will work to get you home and you will not be alone. And for a while, that was enough.

He was thinking about his death. But he did not seem frightened. As hard as it was for him to lose my mother, first to dementia and then to lung cancer, he did not rail against the heavens. I asked if he believed in God. He said he wished he could. But he was angry, angry that my mother had feared her own death – a woman who had been devoutly religious, a mother who had been sustained by her faith when her little girl was taken from her by leukemia. He placed the blame on God. If there was a God, how could he let her be afraid, he asked. The Just God was unjust. Then he said, “I hope it doesn’t shock you but I look forward to being with your mother again.” So you believe in the afterlife, I asked him. He replied, “What’s the alternative?”

Six months before he died, he had stopped asking what would happen to him and started predicting his own death. On a visit in July, my brother Bruce called, choked up; hearing our father talk about dying unhinged him, he said. Initially Dad’s phrasing was playful: “I don’t have long before the big jump.” He made it sound like an adventure. He was plummeting to earth.

It was summer then, when the trees drooped from the heat that pressed down from relentlessly blue skies. In better days we would have walked in a lazy serpentine from one circle of shade to the next. Dad would have summoned his breath to recite a passage from The Ancient Mariner, intoning in his best imitation of Richard Burton, “Alone, alone, all, all alone,/ Alone on a wide wide sea!/ And never a saint took pity on/ My soul in agony.”

Instead I watched him pant in his chair, his lungs crunching inward at the end of each exhalation. He interrupted his sentences to breathe. For a while he said I don’t think I can pull through this. Finally he began to say I’m not long for this world.

I didn’t want to believe him. I even found a word for people like him, people who survive long past every prediction, people who teeter on the precipice time and time again, but always pull back from the edge. People like my father are called “biologically tenacious.” On the day that hospice came to evaluate my father, my son told me that he didn’t think Papa could die, would die within six months, as the nurse had to conclude for my father to be admitted in the program. My son was angry at the hospice nurse for her matter-of-fact statement about Dad’s prognosis.

My friend Jim wrote me: “Remember, the descent is like going down stairs.  Sometimes one by one, and sometimes several at a time.  Nothing you can do about this but be present and loving.  His spirit is trying to discard his human body so it can move forward.”

I wrote this prayer:

Help me, God, to be fully present

Help me to feel calm so that I can calm my father

Help me to radiate so much love that it warms him

Help me to support the others who love him on this awful journey

Help me to understand

Help me to love

Help me

I knew I had to say goodbye, to say the words that might help release him. I told him my brothers and I would be okay, that he had raised us well. That we would do the best that we could to help him be comfortable. I told him I wished I could make it easier. He told me he was proud of me.

On New Year’s Eve, when we watched the festivities on television, we did not know he had only twelve days left. He turned to me and said, “In my next life I’m going to come back for you.”


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Happy Birthday, Mom

Eileen D. Campbell and Henry S. Campbell, 1941

My mother would have been 97 today. I’m sitting at the laptop in my office in front of a wall cluttered with pictures, my son’s and daughter’s art projects, and Mary Oliver’s poem that ends, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” I’m here because I need to start working on my writing assignment to “follow the image”: see something or remember something and trace its association back to wherever memory takes me.

My mother’s clothes float into my mind. (Why my mother’s clothes?) She was partial to wool and crisp cotton, blouses paired with pleated skirts and sharp jackets. Her style was tailored, classic, unfussy. Chanel style without the Chanel. Her favorite color, red, was emblematic of her personality. Red, the color of berries and lipstick and blood.

In my parents’ courtship story, her attire is a factor in my father’s first impression, “Then this vision entered the room dressed to the nines.” She was never a woman to be taken lightly, and her clothes said as much. So did her shoes. Though she never talked about clothes (other than the trouble she got in for intentionally ruining a classmate’s leather coat by slipping Limburger cheese in its pocket), her selection as an I. Magnin shoe model in college was offered as evidence of her superior calves and ankles. When my grandfather met my mother, he reportedly said, “Son, a pretty face will fade away but a good pair of legs is a joy forever.”

Two “nevers” as I describe her. Funny that I find it easier to describe my mother in terms of what she wasn’t rather than what she was: not the slightest bit kittenish, not shy, not retiring, not patient, not passive.

I know a lot about what drove my mother: only child of older parents, self-described Tomboy, hero worshipper of her pugnacious attorney father whom she lost in her 20s, treasured lap child of a grandmother she adored (whose one-size-fits-all medical remedy was to “make up your mind and throw it off by morning”). I know what made her mad (almost everything I did). I know what she believed (in God but not virgin birth). I know what she thought (she told me). But I know almost nothing about her longings, fears, worries, hurts, regrets. Her vulnerabilities.

Why are my mother’s clothes on my mind, today? Clothes make the woman. Though she adapted to fashion trends throughout the years (hostess dresses being among the least attractive on a short full-figured woman), she knew what suited her hourglass shape. Having been told by her father that there would be no “female barrister” in the family, she focused on the domestic front, becoming the best officer’s wife and mother that she could imagine, performing her duties with ferocious commitment. Image came with the territory. She may not have stopped conversation when she arrived for P.E.O., the Altar Guild, or a bridge luncheon but her outfits always elicited appreciative murmurings.

I remember surreptitiously inspecting her closet during the later years of her life, looking for signs of stains.

I first noticed that something was wrong with her in 1991, when my daughter was four and I was pregnant. We had gathered my husband’s family and my parents for Thanksgiving. I had planned to have Maddie sit by my mother at the makeshift long table, but Maddie refused. Maddie was adamant about sitting next to me. My mother was so hurt by the rejection that she cried. She cried. A snit, a retort, or a cold shoulder: these were reactions I would have recognized. For my mother to feel snubbed by a child was inconceivable as she approached her fiftieth year of marriage and nearly as many years of child-rearing. By that spring, when I came home from the hospital less than twenty-four hours after childbirth, I knew something was seriously amiss. Mom had arrived at my home and promised to take care of the house and me so that I could take care of my newborn. As her mother had done for her. When I entered the house around 6 p.m. and laid down on the couch, Tommy sleeping on my chest, she appeared over the couch and asked, “What did you have planned for dinner?” I was stunned.

I hurt for my mother, my proud mother, when her clothes fell short of her meticulous standard. This was the woman my father found crying, trying to sew a button back on, aware that she had forgotten how, she, the woman who knew not only how to sew but to tailor. So I took to sneaking into her room while she stood at the kitchen counter smoking and staring into space. “I’ll just throw a few of your things in with mine,” I told her.

If she was surprised, she didn’t show it. She invented stories to explain the new routines in the household. “Your father seems to have developed an interest in cooking,” she told me. Dad, like me, had slipped in.

That was awful, Mom, worse than the lung cancer I feared would kill you, did kill you. You saved the letter I wrote in third grade imploring you to quit smoking. It read, “If you die my spirit and soul will die.” Watching you slip away – proud, funny, bold, hot-tempered, outspoken, opinionated, organized, independent, competitive, dedicated, passionate you – was torture. You, the real you, the you before dementia stole your mind, did not just visit this world. You made of your life “something particular, and real.”

For the complete text of Mary Oliver’s poem, click here:


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The Brown Box

brown kleenex box

To the casual observer, the tissue box looks worn, two out of four corners ripped, one side caved in, another mangled. Some Kleenex executive must have returned from Italy enthused about marbleized paper and decided that a little European flair was just what the product line needed. Some minion then dutifully produced a facsimile in a repeating pattern to decorate the cardboard before it was cut, scored, folded and glued into the shape of a box. The result is the brown box before me.

The design of the packaging is not important here. The brown is. Brown was my father’s favorite color, so I bought brown Kleenex boxes.

After dressing and emerging from his room at precisely 8 a.m. each morning (the hour he determined he would be less underfoot), my father pushed his walker to the side of my kitchen table and pressed firmly down on the handles that secured the brakes. He then crab-walked his hands along the edge of the table, moving carefully so as not to fall, and lowered himself into place on the far side. I rose from my chair nearby and surrendered the New York Times, reassembling it for him so that it appeared fresh from the porch. He offered to pour his own coffee, as he did every day. By then I was walking to the coffee maker, as I did every day. It was our little dance of manners; he would offer and I would decline. Coffee with room for milk, doctored with two blue packets of sweetener.

It was time for Kleenex. Every morning, while I prepared his coffee, my father prepared Kleenex with the precision of a Marine Corps drill detail. “Snap and pop” they call it. Dad had the snap but had lost the pop. In slow motion, he carefully withdrew one double-ply sheet of Kleenex (he insisted on double-ply) and laid it on the table, aligning it with the table seam that bisected the oval surface. A second sheet was pulled out. He then delicately lowered the second sheet onto the first, taking a moment to make sure the lower corners matched before allowing the top sheet to drift onto its mate. With impressive dexterity, he picked up the entire construction by pinching the top two corners between his index fingers and thumbs, this despite the loss of one top digit to a lawn mower years before. He raised the two double-ply sheets to eye level and inspected them to make sure that the creases lined up exactly. Then he folded the top half over the bottom, and reduced it to pocket size by doubling it again. When he blew his nose (damn post nasal drip, he would say), this improved Kleenex would provide a reassuring eight sturdy layers of absorbency. He supplied his left breast pocket with two such packets, and his left trouser pocket with two more.

The day could begin.

The prospect of running short on Kleenex was a constant source of anxiety for my father. He not only stocked his pockets, but tucked folded tissues under his bed pillows and stuffed them along the seam of his recliner. Every room that he entered was supplied with a large box. When a box in the bedroom, bathroom or kitchen reached the half-way mark, he asked me to buy more.

“How could we possibly need Kleenex again,” my husband asked as he prepared for a Costco run at one point. “I just bought it two weeks ago.”

My husband didn’t realize that, every night, Dad unloaded his pockets into his dresser drawer. Along with his glasses (kept in a plastic sleeve with his Col., USMC Ret., business card taped to the top), my father’s pockets disgorged his hoard: the small vial of nitroglycerin, travel sized dental floss, his wallet. But mostly, his pockets were a storehouse for wads of crumpled up tissue that would cover more than a square foot space with a two-inch high pile.

When I saw the brown Kleenex box with the tattered corners shoved in the back of a bathroom cupboard, I recognized it. It’s the last of the supply we laid in for my father.

These days, I buy tissue rarely, and when I do, I gravitate toward boxes with delicate patterns in light colors – peach, blush pink, pale yellow. But when I turn them over, I see that the saccharine message, written by some copywriter, remains the same: “With the perfect balance of softness and strength, each tissue soothes your sniffles, sneezes and tears and leaves your spirits uplifted.”

It’s hard to feel moved by tissues. They’re just absorbent paper in tasteless boxes. But this box, this ugly brown box, is a relic of everyday mornings in a sunny chair with coffee, the paper and Dad.

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“I Pray to Float”


Only two young children were brave enough to join Rev. Mary when she asked for help with the sermon this morning. They shyly approached the front of the church where Mary awaited with pens and index cards.

Staying engaged in the liturgy had been a struggle. I kept turning over and over in my head a comment that really bothered me. At a recent memorial service in the same Episcopal church, a visitor — someone I know well — remarked that they really hated canned prayers. “In our church, we think you should just talk straight to the Big Guy,” she said to me. “There shouldn’t be anyone between you and God.”

As I sat in church, surrounded mostly by gray haired people, reciting prayers together and warbling through nineteenth century tunes with eighteenth century lyrics, I could see how it would seem foreign, formal, maybe even forced to someone who gravitates toward a Big Box evangelical church.

But I found it welcoming and comforting, like being held in my mother’s arms.

For once upon a time, I did lean against my mother’s ample breast as she added her voice to the church choir. I, too, was a little shy. I disliked church school, which my brother dutifully attended during the grown up part of the service. Rather than sit alone, I joined my mother in the choir, and sang along as best I could.

I was also thinking about Memorial Day. Last year, I remember a man rose during the service and paid homage to a friend of his who fell in battle, long, long ago, when they were both young men. “I will never forget,” he said.

As the children stared up at Rev. Mary this morning, she explained that she would give them index cards and some pens to write a prayer. Their prayer would be read during the Prayers of the People, which came next. They were asked to give the cards and pens they didn’t need to someone in the congregation.

With trepidation, little Carrie began walking down the aisle. Mary said, “Just close your eyes and give it to someone.” Her blue sparkly shoes advanced methodically, first the right heel, then the toe, then the left heel, and the toe.

“Pssssst,” I whispered to her. “Psssst.” Her eyes still closed, she inched in my direction. At last she opened them and handed me a card.

On it, accompanied by hand-drawn symbols, I wrote this message: “For love and healing for those who served (and serve), and those who waited (and wait). May their hearts find peace.”

Ripples extend each time someone dies. They flatten in widening circles with time and distance. But the ripples remain even when they move beyond our sight.

Church for me is a time of communion. I’m not referring to the gathering of a supportive Christian community (though it is that), or the sharing of the sacrament that we call communion.

Church is a place where I feel close to my parents, and my mother in particular, who was a dyed-in-the-wool Episcopalian. It is a place that lives out of time, a place between this world and whatever follows it.

Poet David Whyte recently published this line:

“Beauty especially occurs in the meeting of time with the timeless; the passing moment framed by what has happened and what is about to occur.”

When it came time for the Prayers of the People, Rev. Mary read what little Carrie had written, her heart’s longing:

“I pray to float.”

This morning, I floated — thinking of those who have died, praying for those who remain, and held by the familiarity of a liturgy that is embedded in my bones.

(I wrote about my father’s service during WWII last year in this post and about my mother’s role holding down the homefront in this one.)


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