May my heart’s truth still be sung

Seattle Times, July 16, 1995 (50th anniversary of the first atomic bomb).

Strange things happen in life––a ticket here, a ticket there, and twenty, thirty, forty years later the destination.

–– William McPherson, Testing the Current

Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

–– W. H. Auden, For the Time Being

Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection.

––– Collect for the first Sunday in July, Book of Common Prayer

 

Today I turned 75. I’ve seen it coming for a long time, but I’m still surprised! I took my first breath early in the evening of July 16, 1944, at the Hospital of the Good Samaritan in Los Angeles. Twenty-two years later, four days before my birthday, my father would take his last breath in the same place.

Every birth date collects an assortment of associations and memories. My favorite film noir, Double Indemnity, begins with a doomed Fred MacMurray speaking into a Dictaphone, beginning with the date: “July 16, 1938” (the film was released in 1944, and co-star Barbara Stanwyck’s birthday was July 16). On my 7th birthday, Catcher in the Rye was published. I saw Paris for the first time when I turned 17. On my 29th  birthday, Alexander Butterfield revealed to the Senate Watergate Committee the existence of the Nixon tapes.

My hometown paper on my 25th birthday.

When I turned one year old, the first atomic bomb was exploded in New Mexico. On my 25th birthday, Apollo 11 blasted off for the moon. And on my 50th, a comet crashed into Jupiter, creating the largest explosion ever witnessed in the solar system.

If those explosive bursts of heat and light were some kind of sequence (1…25…50…), what was in store for 75? Apocalypse? Thankfully, on this 50th anniversary of the moon launch, the iconic phenomenon proved both gentle and fitting. No great event, no big bang. But not a whimper either. What happened tonight was this: a full moon rose in silence over a collapsed volcano (whose supposed similarity to the moon’s surface had provided a valuable training ground for the lunar astronauts). The tranquil orb shed its luminous blessing, the close of a perfect day. O gracious Light!

Rising moon above Newberry Crater, Oregon, July 16, 2019.

From 1956 to 1962, I attended an Episcopal boys’ school in Los Angeles. In my class of sixty-five, three of my best friends had, like me, been born in July of 1944. After sharing a formative passage through adolescence and being collectively imprinted––or cursed––with the high expectations fostered by a privileged education, we maintained our bonds into adulthood. In the month of our thirtieth birthdays, we gathered at a California beach house for a weekend of celebration and memory. Toward the end, there was a midnight toast. “Hey Jude” came on the stereo as we lifted our glasses to past and future selves. Take a sad song and make it better. We were not yet where we wanted to be, but we still feasted on dreams and a sense of promise. In ten years, we pledged, our forty-year-old selves would gather again to trade stories of the journey.

O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.

Dylan Thomas wrote these hopeful words when he turned thirty. But it doesn’t always work that way. A year after our glad toasts by the sea, on the last day before our birthday month, one of the four committed suicide. We three who remained gathered to sing him home in our old school chapel. We could only guess at the pain that took him from us.

When Jon died, I was deep in the mountain wilderness of the Sierra Nevada. Just before sunrise he came to me in a dream, assuring me that he was all right. I awoke and looked at my watch––6:00 am. It was, I learned later, the hour of his death.

A week after his funeral, on the day of my 31birthday, I rose early to take a long walk in the hills above Los Angeles, where pockets of wildness and quiet still thrive in the heart of the teeming metropolis. Jon and I had both been runners in high school, and we loved training together in these hills. Our school was situated along their lower slope, so it only took a few minutes of running to leave the cityscape behind.

As I walked these same hills so soon after his death, Jon was very much in my thoughts, and one particular workout came to mind. Just behind the school chapel, a 150-yard stretch of road climbed steeply to a crest. During our senior year, in a pouring rain, Jon and I challenged each other to run a series of all-out sprints up this grade, one after another, until we both collapsed, utterly exhausted and sick to our stomachs.

We made it back to the gym to recover. Jon stretched out on a bench and closed his eyes. He lay there a long time, not saying a word. When he finally spoke, he said he’d had it with running. He was going to quit the team. The feeling soon passed, and he would go on to win the southern California half-mile championship in a time of 1:53.1. But I remember feeling genuine alarm in the presence of his momentary despair. It was like a black hole, sucking up all the light around it. Jon was made for running, and his powerful spirit made the rest of us faster. To see that spirit falter, if only for a moment, was unsettling, like witnessing a saint’s crisis of faith and wondering about the fragile poise of your own soul.

After my birthday walk, I put this recollection in a letter to an east coast friend. But I prefaced it with a report of what I had seen around me on that particular day––not darkness and death, but the beauty of a summer morning in the hills of home:

“The intensely blue panicles of a ceanothus shrub arched across the path like an enchanted boundary, a gate back to Eden. Near a jocular little stream, a California thrasher poked its long, curved bill into the debris beneath an oak tree. A solitary yellow leaf, suspended by a long spider’s thread against a background of dark mist, spun ecstatically in a ray of sunlight. The path unfolded before me like a narrative––meandering through the hush of sheltering thickets, emerging onto a golden slope of drying grasses, climbing upward into the enfolding blankness of a beclouded ridge, dipping downward to become a gentle country lane, purple-strewn with eucalyptus leaves, and finally spilling out into the alluvial plain of houses, lawns and swimming pools.”

It was as if an essential part of my response to loss and grief was to pay close attention to the gifts of one summer day, offered so generously to my receptive heart. To pay attention as if my own life depended on it.

“How shall the heart be reconciled / to its feast of losses?” asked the poet Stanley Kunitz, who lived to an even 100 years. The longer you live, the more the losses mount up––but also the beauties, the graces, the affectionate motions of the heart. I like what another poet, Vera Pavlova, says about this:

If there is something to desire,
there will be something to regret.
If there is something to regret,
there will be something to recall.
If there is something to recall,
there was nothing to regret.[i]

In one of Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes cartoons, the boy gets a letter from his past self. It reads: “Dear future Calvin, I wrote this several days before you will receive it. You’ve done things I haven’t done. You’ve seen things I haven’t seen. You know things I don’t know. You lucky dog! Your pal, Calvin.”

Calvin sniffles a bit and says, “I feel so sorry for myself two days ago.” To which his tiger friend, Hobbes, responds, “Poor him. He wasn’t you.”

Stanley Kunitz could sympathize. “I have walked through many lives,” he wrote, “some of them my own, / and I am not who I was . . .” So who am I now? Hmm. But ever since my baptism in November of 1944, the more critical question has always been, Whose am I?. As we say at the end of every mortal life, “whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.” Is it possible to live in the light of that truth, come what may?

After my mother died in 2010, I found a prayer she had written on the flyleaf of her Daily Office book. It’s something she would have said almost every day: “God, whatever . . . Thanks.”

On my twenty-first birthday, my father, a priest, celebrated eucharist in our living room with my mother and me. Afterward, he presented me with a letter he had composed for the occasion. “Happiness is not found in security,” he reminded me, “nor can it be bought with money, but it is a holy mystery that is a gift from God, found only in serving Him.”

When I turned 40, my sister Marilyn sent me a list of questions.

What would you like to accomplish in your work? In your personal life?
How long do you think you will live?
What would you like to begin?
What would you like to end?
Name a physical risk you’d like to take.
Name an emotional risk you’d like to take.
Of what might you be afraid?
What do you want to mend?
What song describes your life at 40?
What writer touches you deeply at 40?
What would you like to create for yourself? For the world?
What are 3 things you are most satisfied with so far in your life?

These remain searching questions for me today, despite the somewhat eroded sense of future produced by thirty-five additional birthdays. I’ll start to ponder my answers tomorrow (God willing). Meanwhile, what Stanley Kunitz says, that is what I say:

Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.[ii]

Twenty-five years ago, on my 50th birthday, I made a 9-mile pilgrimage through English countryside to an old church cemetery in the Lake District. Arriving just after sunset, I laid a pair of California wildflowers on the grave of William Wordsworth. A waxing crescent moon hung suspended over a nearby hill. Shining very close to it was Jupiter, where the comet was making its cosmic crash. But here on earth, in this quiet churchyard, nothing but peace. I had pressed the two flowers––California poppy and Farewell-to-Spring––in my copy of Wordsworth’s Prelude, whose buoyant embrace of the human journey––rejecting the melancholy “wandering steps and slow” at the end of Paradise Lost––I claimed for myself at the beginning of my sixth decade. In these latter days, I do so again:

The earth is all before me. With a heart
Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty,
I look about; and should the chosen guide
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way. I breathe again!

Laying wildflowers on Wordsworth’s grave on my 50th birthday.

 

 

Related post: Grace Me Guide

[i] Vera Pavlova, “Four Poems,” translated from the Russian by Steven Seymour, The New Yorker, July 30, 2007, 37.

[ii] Stanley Kunitz excerpts are from “The Layers,” The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz(New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2002). Poetry Foundation link: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/54897/the-layers

 

Running on Fast Forward

Martha, Jim and Marilyn Friedrich, after the great Los Angeles snowfall (January 1949)

They were so young then, the four of them
sitting on a log in the sand, a row of apartments
in the background, each window facing the sea.

We must have been ten, in matching swimsuits,
riding the long rollers toward shore, dreaming
of soldiers handsome in their uniforms.

They look happy, our parents, as if they had
given away all their secrets and could relax,
not one of them thinking of tomorrow

or yesterday, or any peril that might befall
their children, tumbling about in inner tubes
over the thrilling ocean.

A breeze ruffles the hem of my mother’s skirt.
My father has taken off his shoes.

– Marilyn Robertson, “The Photograph”[i]

My oldest sister Marilyn wrote this poem about an old photo from the 1940s. She and a friend were off-camera, playing in the surf, while their parents kept watch from the shore. “The Photograph” is in a new collection of her poems she presented to her siblings, Martha and me, last weekend, on the occasion of her 80th birthday. I found some of my own childhood inside, like the time I fell out of a moving car at two years old.

In return, I gave her my DVD compilation edit of scenes from our childhood and youth, captured with the clarity of 16mm film by our father. I had added an interpretive music track ranging from “My Blue Heaven” to “Magical Mystery Tour.”

A retrospective mood is common enough on significant birthdays, but the documentary evidence of those home movies gave a vivid immediacy to our memories. Both still and moving pictures preserve long-vanished light. They become the past the instant they are shot. To look at them brings the joy of remembered presence, but also the melancholy of realized absence. Our parents are gone; so is our own past. Who are those bewildered little siblings in the old films, inventing their place in this world, improvising as they go? Did they really grow up to be us?

Eight members of the family––by coincidence, one for each of Marilyn’s decades––gathered for her birthday weekend in one of architect Julia Morgan’s rustic wood and stone houses at Asilomar (“refuge by the sea”) on the tip of California’s Monterey Peninsula. My sisters and I, along with various spouses and children, savored the chance to share memories, plans and dreams, as well as games, walks, and very un-Lenten feasts.

Present and future were as much on our minds as the past. But still, the theme of passing time was inescapable. We grow old, we lose loved ones, we know the meter is running. “Last Times,” another of Marilyn’s poems, considers the divided consciousness of mortal beings. Though “now” is all we ever really have, we can’t help but wonder how long we’ve got.

Halfway through December, a day comes when
I wonder how many more turkeys I’ll bake, worrying
over the gravy, the pan always hard to clean.

Or how many more times I’ll unwrap the crèche
from its colored tissue, lifting out the holy family,
the shepherds and their docile sheep.

I am running on fast forward.
If only I could change direction, like movies
my father ran backward in the projector:

smashed bricks gathering themselves
into a wall again, a smashed truck suddenly
good as new, rolling backward down the road,
clouds of dust sucked in by the tires.

The last time I saw that film I was a girl.
We’d beg him to run it again
and finally he’d agree: But this is the last time.

I make out the grocery list,
slip on my jacket, plan the week
as if the days will follow one another
through this house forever.[ii]

Marilyn Robertson, Jim Friedrich, and Martha Stevens at their father’s childhood home (Summer 1980)

On our last evening together we lingered well past bedtime, happy to postpone the inevitable scattering of the clan. We wandered out to the coastal dunes beyond the lights, where Orion hovered brightly beside the Paschal Moon. To the music of breaking waves, we recited Greek myths about the heavens. When we returned to the house, Martha, a brilliant storyteller, gave us an epic tale about a red-headed woman, Maud Applegate, who tracks Death across the wide world to beg for the life of her cowboy love, grievously wounded in a gunfight. When Maud finally spots her quarry climbing the steep trail to his mountain home, she shouts, “Hey, Mr. Death, wait up!”

She not only finds Mr. Death, she also meets his mother, who proves very sympathetic, and the three of them form a surprising bond. Death eventually grants Maud the boon of sparing her man, but the cowboy turns out to be a cad, and in the end the red-headed woman goes back to Death’s place, to help out as best she can and ease the burden of his loneliness. It was a story both funny and strange, deftly told. We all listened intently, like children with upturned faces. Somehow a tale about befriending Mr. Death was just the thing for our little group of aging mortals.

My wife lost her father in January. Four other people dear to me have also departed in the last six months. Our family has loved ones struggling with cancer and Parkinson’s. The losses are mounting up.

“Oh the separations we endure!” laments my poet sister.

A young man arrives at the station,
two black stones in his pocket.
His beautiful face breaks into a hundred pieces,

then reassembles itself
as he boards the train, waving
goodbye, goodbye to the life that loved him,

watching it fall backward into the wind,
the bamboo gate, the garden
with its wooden bridge over the pond.[iii]

Goodbye, goodbye to the ones we love. And then it’s goodbye to the life that loved us. And yet, as Rilke insists, “there is Someone, whose hands, infinitely calm, holds up all this falling.”[iv] While it’s no use to deny our mortality, there remains a mysterious surplus to human life for which death has no accounting.

On Sunday morning we celebrated eucharist together (it helps to have two priests in the family!), and the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent seemed especially apt. First came Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, contradicting the human sense of loss with the divine promise that our story is never quite over. I am going to open your graves, O my people, and raise you up. I will put my Spirit in you and you shall live.

The gospel for the day was the raising of Lazarus, the Fourth Gospel’s overture to resurrection on the brink of Holy Week. Perfect. Two sisters and a brother. Death doing what it does. Then Jesus doing what God does.

On the way to the post office this morning
I thought about the odd things we believe.

Things we swear by, pray for, put our trust in,
or wear printed on the back of a T-shirt.

Tarot cards. Crystal balls.
Runes and rattlesnakes.

First stars, second sight––
not to mention elves and Armageddon.

Just look at me, believing that someone
might have written me a letter,

that the world is in good hands,
that a man once walked out of a stone cold tomb

into the light of day, leaving
poor old Death completely in the dark.[v]

 

 

Related posts:

Tick-Tock: Thoughts for New Year’s Eve

Are we too late for the Resurrection?

You say goodbye, I say hello: A Requiem sermon

 

 

[i] When a Color Calls Your Name: Poems by Marilyn Robertson (Santa Cruz, California, Limited Edition, 2017), 28

[ii] “Last Times,” ibid., 82

[iii] from “Separations,” ibid., 51

[iv] Rainer Maria Rilke, “Fall”

[v] “Belief,” Robertson, 53

Paying attention

Summer day, Deschutes River, eastern Oregon.

Summer day, Deschutes River, eastern Oregon.

Day creeps after day, each full of facts … And presently the aroused intellect finds … that a fact is an epiphany of God, that on every fact of his life he should rear a temple of wonder and joy.     – Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of today’s first facts was a blackberry that called to me as I ran by at dawn. Blackberries normally ripen in August, but here was one, dark and soft to the touch, ready for harvest in mid-July. Like Moses turning aside from his path to investigate a revelatory shrub, I interrupted my run to taste that precocious berry. How delicious! Sweet sacrament of summer.

This is the day I was born, long ago in another century, and I am celebrating by setting aside tasks and plans to slow down and take time, giving over the hours to what poet Mary Oliver calls “noticing and cherishing.” There are birds to watch, poetry to read, music to play, water to swim in, trails to explore. Or maybe, like Thoreau in his cabin’s sunny doorway, I will just sit among the trees, rapt in reverie, “in undisturbed solitude and stillness.”

After the blackberry, what else will offer itself to my attention?

Never in eternity the same sound –
a small stone falling on a red leaf.

So wrote Jane Kenyon in her poem, “Things,” which shares Emerson’s awareness of facts as epiphanies. But Kenyon, whose own time on earth was all too brief, was keenly aware that such joys are always on the verge of disappearance.

Things: simply lasting, then
failing to last: water, a blue heron’s
eye, and the light passing
between them: into light all things
must fall, glad at last to have fallen.

So much beauty, so many epiphanies. Do we have enough time? Robert Louis Stevenson said that “you have no idea, unless you have tried it, how endlessly long is a summer day.” So today I will try it. I will make an experiment in attentiveness and wonder, gratitude and joy. It is, I know, a luxurious waste of time. But it seems “meet and right so to do.” As photographer and writer Walker Evans reminds us, paying attention is what we were made for:

Stare. Educate the eye.
Die knowing something.
You are not here long.