Abraham. Lincoln. (and) Sybil.

•03/03/2013 • 6 Comments


Sally Field crumples down into her own hoop skirt, melting into an inconsolable circle on her bedroom floor.  She rides in the presidential carriage, Mrs.Lincoln does, carrying her love and depression in colors that sting; she attends her husband’s fateful death in her home, shattered into fragile pieces.  My father sits next to me in the cinema, his wheelchair nestled into the handicap niche.  I remember, as a child, Carl Sandburg’s huge biographical tome on Abraham Lincoln by my father’s chair; how he followed this fellow Kentuckian’s life and political strategy for its honor, efficacy, leadership.  Now, watching the end of his hero’s life, my father can hardly breathe, he is almost choking on tears.  I wonder if I should be concerned, but he is not.  So, I lean back and move into the story with him – the long marriage, the accomplishments and failures of this man who came from nothing and made something large of it, this heart-wrenching death.  Long after others leave the theater, we remain.  The story holds us there.

Since my father’s words have gone, rather completely now, we must find other ways to weave the day-to-day connection between us.  Conversation is difficult, to say the least, and rather one-sided, with me the loser there.  So, we watch movies together.  We enter a larger story, feel our way down to the nub of it; we steep in its brew.

On my last visit, my father broke his bedtime schedule for the first time I can remember in order to watch the next installment of Downton Abbey with me.  I put him onto the show a year ago; he consumed all the past episodes on his ipad with fancy headphones that make the music swell, the world go away.  Now that he is caught up, we jump into the stream together with Carson and Mrs. Patmore, Mary and Bates and Robert all struggling to face the changes set upon them.  And then, right there in my father’s family room, dear Sybil gives birth to a new little life and, in doing so, gives up her own. I am there for the blame, the oceanic grief, a father’s helplessness.

Conversation with my father was often a heady affair.  So, it surprises us both, I think,  to let story take over.  Story takes us behind another theater curtain, one where we don’t have to understand but simply feel life happening between and among us.  A new and unpredictable conversation of the heart.

On my last phone call, my father asked if I had seen the final episode of Downton Abbey.  Our cable connection had inconveniently gone out that night and we missed the conclusion to the season, I had to report.  Ahhh… he said.  And then, in slow carefully enunciated slurs, It will break your heart.  

This is how it is these days.  We live with a larger world, with an imagination embracing a vivid past and yet hopeful future, seamlessly braiding life and death, the tragic and the fair.  Not many words are needed. Our hearts are broken, and held.


Abel Tasman’s. Leafy. Specimen.

•01/10/2013 • 3 Comments


I’ve heard a lot about Rata and Rimu lately, hiking along the coast of New Zealand with an avid botanist who personally introduces us to each specimen on the trail. The Rimu, (which we notice could just as well be Rumi if you scatter the letters and rearrange them), is a tall, elegant poem of a tree with long-leafed fingers reaching into the blue sky. High onto its branches, spores of the Northern Rata lodge and begin to sprout, growing roots down – 25, 35, 50 feet down – until they touch soil. The Rata roots, growing downward oh, so slowly, encircle their host and embrace it, until at last they form a solid casing around it. The Rimu, enfolded, dies a natural death of old age; while the Rata lives on, rooted in the same soil, for hundreds of years to come. At the center, forming the core, is always the lingering poem.

At our Christmas gathering last, my father sat quietly, beyond speech, as his family encircled him. We chattered away about our lives, children and grandchildren with little greatgrand now all at last rooted in soil, and growing around him, thickly, forming a tree of our own. The golden-tongued poet was silent at the center of us all. After our exchange of gifts, he spoke as he could to our straining ears.”The thing of which I am most proud”, said my father, “of all that I have done in this life, is this, my family.” We circled around him, our strong roots joined, now holding up his faltering trunk.

He will go, of course, from us. The family will live on for years beyond. But at the center of who we are is the tree who hosted us when we were simply spores of ideas. The one whose wide branches held us as we grew down into ourselves, into our place on earth.

At the core of our lives – all of our lives, I want to believe – is an elegant poem not of our making. It lingers in us, beyond speech, distilled into love.


announcing. Liam’s. song.

•12/26/2012 • 6 Comments

Within the circle of our lives,
we dance the circles of the years,
the circles of the seasons
within the circles of the years,


the cycles of the moon
within the circles of the seasons,
the circles of our reasons
within the cycles of the moon.

photo DSC_0507

Again, again, we come and go,
changed, changing.  Hands
join, unjoin in love and fear,
grief and joy.  The circles turn,
each giving unto each, into all.DSC_0460


Only music keeps us here,
each by all the others held.

photo DSC_0492

In the hold of hands and eyes
we turn in pairs, that joining
joining each to all again.

DSC_0473 DSC_0516


And then we turn aside, alone,
out of the sunlight gone

into the darker circles of return.

IMG_1003Song (4)

by Wendell Berry

a. letter. (for the) season.

•11/19/2012 • 11 Comments

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Psalm 23

my dear father,

I want to roast you a turkey with oyster dressing (no sage) as you always wanted it at Thanksgiving.  But you can no longer eat.

I want to sit with you and hear about the progress of your latest writing project – how your book unfolds, surprises you, wakes you in the night.   But you can not longer speak so that I can hear.

I’ve been pondering how we shall celebrate Thanksgiving without the banquet spread, without the lilt of conversation, or a walk to stretch our legs.  Will the warm fragrance of fowl baking, the clatter of gravy being conjured bring you happiness that family is near, or an ache for what you cannot taste, or both?  When I ask, you laugh and shake your head and utter that happy mound of words I’ve come to recognize by their cadence:  “I’m OK.  Don’t Worry About Me!”

I’ve been learning, as you ask, not to worry about you, but to see, instead, what is true.  Which is a generous and lavish hospitality rising in you to set a banquet for me, for all of us.  Not a groaning board of sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie, but a banquet that feeds and delights me, nonetheless.

In the utter poverty of your physical resources, yet you set forth a surprising abundance.  Your humor in all things, your wide breaking-open smile, your sparkling eyes, your wry un-self-pitying comebacks.  When I suggest a date for my next visit, remembering how we used to labor through your complicated speaking schedule to find a narrow window of time, you shrug and laugh and say:  I’ll be here!  When we both go face to face straining hard – you to speak a distinguishable word and me to understand it – and when I fail over and over as I sometimes do – then there is simply a puddle of laughter into which we both go falling.  What else is there to do?  Your humor seasons and tenderizes potential bitterness on an daily basis.  I give thanks for it.

But your work – and your herculean dedication to it – is the meat you offer at this banquet.  How you still chew on ideas, cook up words, feast on the gift of creative endeavor.  You recently called the caregiver at 5:30 in the morning to get up, I hear, because you simply couldn’t wait until 6:00:  sentences had baked in the night, chapter headings were cooked.  It sets before me the sheer aliveness, the purpose, and the consuming sustenance of our creative lives.

I hear that you insisted on voting in person on November 6, with a little help from Andrew to push the buttons.  News of that fed me – how you wanted to exercise your citizenship, weigh in,  still be a part of the count.  How you read the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Birmingham News every evening, barely able to hold them in your hands, but ever curious about the world chuffing on beyond the doors you seldom leave.  For that, I’m thankful – your engagement, unflagging, with the whole, and knowing yourself a part of it.

You set a table, my dear father, which I am overjoyed to join this Thanksgiving.  Your humility, your self-respect, your respect for others, your visible love, and your ever-renewing spirit are also there.  Your quiet grief in the absence of your loving wife.  All this seasons our week together.  All of it brings me to thanks.

In and above and around and below:  my deep gratitude for the privilege of being your daughter.

always at your table,


another. little. sprout.

•10/30/2012 • 5 Comments

Emily was his first grandchild, and his only little girl.  My father threw her on his shoulder, after delivering his most profound words in a tightly crafted sermon, and paraded her around the church like a palanquin carrying a Maharani princess.  He was smitten with her fetching wiles, as any grandfather ought to be. When she was just a crawler, he chased her around the carpet on all fours while she squealed and gurgled. He read to her, powdered her belly, stashed away for her college fund.

Emily is the one delivering sermons, now.  And not just sermons. The belly he powdered is delivering her own little ripple in the circle of life.  Last night, after twenty placid hours (!), Emily gave birth to William Dean McGee.  My father waited from afar, his heart still ready to be smitten, yet again, with life that sprouts newly green.

William Dean follows his great-granddaddy not just in name, but in promise.  He will walk in the well-worn paths of love into his own boundless destiny.  Drawing, all the while, like sap from the family tree, on the storied memory of those who came before.  The memory of those whose shoulders he rides upon.

Andrew’s. Love. Seasoning.

•10/28/2012 • 7 Comments

Andrew flings about in the kitchen like a one man band playing at once the drums and fiddle and bass while humming the tune.  He is making dinner for me and, much more importantly, his girlfriend, Sarah.   Get out of his way.  The sausage is sizzling, the shrimp getting pealed, the pasta is boiling, a tossed green salad appears.  Flour is dusting the entirety of the counters, packaging is detritus he doesn’t bother to throw away.  The jumble and chaos seems to feed his creative brew; the music is hot and hotter, the girlfriend is amused and happy; I am getting a very good meal for being at the right place at the right time.

I unhook my father from his oxogen, remove his glasses, power up his wheelchair:  he wants to join us for dinner.  No matter that he cannot eat a bite of this savory feast.  He cannot even drink a sip of water anymore.  His daily bread comes in the form of liquid goop ingested through a feeding tube.  He cannot speak so that we will understand.  But he wheels up to the table nonetheless, proving to me beyond any doubt that the dinner table is a social ritual, a bonding beyond food, even beyond conversation.  He simply wants to join the circle.

I light the candles.  Say a prayer of blessing.  Try to think of all the ways one can savor the world when taste and tongue are out of commission.  My father smiles to see us there, to watch us break into the crunchy garlic bread, the savory made-in-the-moment concoction Andrew has orchestrated.  He laughs to hear Sarah’s stories from her social work station in the nearby rural part of town.  He listens to the chatter, feels the fondness alive and glowing in his grandson, feasts on the family, even in little tastes of it.

I asked him later if he ever feels a little bit like Job.  His movement is all but gone, food is over, words are taken from him; he cannot scratch his ear.  Spasms of pain shudder over him throughout the day. Now his wife of 60 years is gone.   He shakes his head no.  And he tries to speak, though I do not understand the greater part of it.  But I hear something like this:  No, I am thankful for my life.  I am glad for my work, for the writing I can still do. And I rejoice greatly in my family.

Sparkling and wide-eyed,  he looks up at me and smiles.

after. lengthening. sorrow.

•09/16/2012 • 1 Comment

After sorrowing, after the last gasps of suffering, then there is simply silence.  Vast as the night sky.

In the month since my mother’s death, I have brooded over her final days – remembering the fog of her slow withdrawal, the words spoken in crumbs, the waning of appetite and desire.

In the midst of these silent recollections, absorbing the full force of her dying,  I’ve found myself exactly at the point of giving birth to an endeavor of my own.  illoominata is a business, a social enterprise, a website, my whole life’s labor culminating in one stroke of passion.  illoominata is about the light of women’s hands and imagination woven/stitched/dyed into cloth.  It’s about hand-loomed luxury, beauty spun from the earth, a world-wide web of women-of-the-cloth rising into creative and financial independence.  My mother loved this work I had conceived.  I know it is time to bring it forth.

My mother was also a woman of the cloth.  She sewed my every dress as a child, even when I begged for storebought; she tailored her own masterful suits and could still slip into their silk-lined size 4 at the end of her life; she sat me on a stool at the fabric store to pour over patterns when I was too young to even read.  She led me to beauty with a thread.

Lying in the foggy dark, one evening recently, a star appeared in my sky.  A familiar image of my mother came to me; far-off, but luminous.  She is a young adult, at the time of her own pregnancies and fullness of powers.  She has been returned, it seems, to her essence, as though she has come through a long arduous passage and been given back the flash of her smile, flickering through the wide dark sky.  In that moment, I realize that her last days are lifted.  They are over.  Who she is with me now is something new.

After the death of one we love, some people are visited in dreams.  Others feel presences.  I found my mother in the silent sky.  She is a part of my constellation.  She shines without fear as I step onto the path of illoominata; she lights my way.  Even this, even this, even this;  she reminds me, even the darkness is illuminated.  

And a star flares out, shattering the silent sky.

almost. like. Simeon

•08/21/2012 • 21 Comments

My mother’s hand fell limply on the sheets; it was barely alive.  We lifted it to place her warm palm against her granddaughter’s belly, blooming with seven months of maternity. Emily had just arrived after a long journey to be at her side.  My mother’s eyes were blinded by now, but I believe her spirit still could see this light.  With the benediction of her hand, she blessed the future of her family.

That was the last thing she did.  Later today, Mother died.

She died on the birthday of her first-born.  My brother David had kept vigil by her side for nine days.  I would wake and find him holding her hand in the quiet dark. After dinner, we would sing to her; his voice would tremble and break, then soon get back on its feet again.  But at noon on this mild summer day, our family took David out to the sunny deck, spread  a feast of barbecue on the garden tables, and sang to him with cake and candles.   I wonder if she knew.  If she had waited for the party.  If she was singing, too, for her first-born child, and his first-born’s first born yet to come.

Simeon saw Mary enter the temple, it says in the gospels, and saw, too, the infant life she held; it had been promised him that he would see the new child before his death.  He did.  And then he knelt and said a prayer that went loosely like this:

Lord, now let your servant depart in peace : according to your promise.
For my eyes have seen the light you have prepared.

My mother saw the generations flow out of her, and today return to touch their source.
She praised the new light, surely, in a silence we cannot understand.

And then she departed, I want to say, in grace and in peace.  

Along. (the) Liminal. Styx.

•08/18/2012 • 6 Comments

My mother is no longer with us here, exactly; nor is she there, safely gathered in that place to which she is going.  She is in-between, on a long and labyrinthine pilgrim route.

I remember my father-in-law saying, in his final days, with a rambling but urgent mind: I’ve got to get across to the piney bluff.  So, she goes.  

The mythic ferryman to the Greeks, Charon carried traveling souls across the uncertain river Styx.  I keep imagining Charon’s presence in this room, his tossing boat, as my mother’s body moves to unseen swells, her hands rise and fall, her face creases, surprised; her feet stir beneath the white sails of sheets, steadying her way.

If dying is a passage, then, for my mother, it is a long and arduous one.  She is beyond words, beyond water and food, beyond the music of the harp that serenades her, the hands that enfold hers.  She is traveling beyond where any of us here have ever gone, laboring at times in silent birth, fighting, it seems, at others,  between two worlds.

My father inches as close as possible in his wheelchair and drops his hand to the bed where he can barely walk it forward to reach hers.  He needles his stiff fingers into her palm; he says, as best as he can with soft mounds of slurry words, “I love you more now than ever.”

I have a long chat with her, too, suggesting we be honest.  We didn’t always understand each other.  Forgive me, I hold her hand in both of mine, as I forgive you.  I want to make the crooked roads straight, the rough places plain.  I want to smooth her way, smooth her gown, smooth her furrowed brow.

Yet, she trembles on the way.  The boat rocks.

I’ve always thought of my mother as she lived in relation to others.  As a wife to my father, inseparably navigating their sixty years together.  As a mother to her children; a devoted daughter to her mother;  a counselor to the those who sought her kindness.

Now, it seems to me that she is alone is this last crossing.  Yes, many friends surround her.  Her family holds her close, we sing around her bed.  But when she utters a faint cry, it sounds as from a land far off.  We do not know, not one of us, where she is.  Or what she sees and knows.  Or how far she has traveled toward the other shore.  This is her journey.  She will take what time she needs.  There are, if any, her demons to vanquish, her fears to subdue, her faith to carry her on.

Relatives used to put coins on the lips of the departed – fees for the ferryman.  I will simply plant a kiss and a prayer, and a final respect for how strong she seems on this pilgrim way.  How much is being asked of her.  How hard she labors, on and on, to reach that piney bluff.

a. last. summons.

•08/12/2012 • 15 Comments

One minute, at Tomasitas, I am begging quarters for the parking meter, flashing dollar bills to the bartender who smiles and fills my palms with coins.  I am crossing Guadalupe Street, with loud trucks heaving by, on my way to the Saturday morning Farmer’s Market in Santa Fe, when my phone rings.  Right there, mid-street, half-crossed, under the hot sun and wide sky.

You never know where you’ll be when the call comes.  Filling a parking meter.  Picking out peaches.  In a bar at 10:00 in the morning.

I duck down a side street and find a low adobe wall under a fruit tree which holds me in  shade. The wall seems to quietly fence a church property, but the church has no name.  On the phone is my father, trying to tell me something, which I cannot understand.  Kenesia, the caregiver, translates, in a thick Southern accent I can almost not understand.  Two friends drive by, pull over, wave.  How can they know, just there in the shade on a low adobe wall, I am answering the call?

Mother has been given a week to live.  He wants to tell me this, about the hospice nurse who has been by since my early morning phone call.  He wants to tell me it is time to come home.

I wave my friends on.  Strangers pass by on the shady sidewalk.  The unmarked church exudes quiet and peace.

I am coming.  He does not know that I have already changed my flights.  The caregivers are women who know living and dying; they had already whispered:  come.  One of them reads a person’s feet and knows.  Don’t ask me how.  I just said: I am coming.

There are only a few calls that trump everything; the call to come home is one.  It is a summons back to the body who knitted you together; back to the cave from whence you first flailed forth, back to the woman whose love is the shape of your dark nights.  The very least I can do is to assist the one who birthed me into her second birth.

We are beyond talking.  I will hold her, if I am lucky.  Body to body, flesh to flesh.  Even the limbic brain knows love, and that is where we will huddle.  In the beginning is the body, the gurgle and burp, the gasp of air, the breast.  And in the end is the body coming to rest.  The arms stilled, eyes closed, the spoon, rejected.    Between that beginning and ending is everything good and heartbreaking, everything wild and wondrous, everything hoped for and found and lost.

I am coming, Mother.  I came into this world in your arms.  You will go out, I pray, in mine.