--Work in the invisible world at least as hard as you do in the visible--
--Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond--
--The door to spirituality truly must be opened from the inside--
I just completed a four-week class on the life and work of Jalalud’din Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet. Rumi is not new to me. I first discovered him as a teenager and have been reading and loving his work ever since. Isn't it amazing that he remains, after more than seven centuries, the most popular and well-read poet in the world. Rumi believed that art both heals and transforms. He believed human beings were sent into the world to do a particular work specific to the person. We all have many branches and we spread out in thousands of different ways. Rumi asks us to remember “the deep root of your being.”
For me, that deep root is writing, especially poetry. I know this by my behavior. Whenever I wake up with a poem, or the seeds of one, inside my head, I go straight to the kitchen table, still in my pajamas, pull out a notebook and start to write. I keep writing until there is nothing left inside me.
Sometimes this process goes on for hours and I will end up with 50 different drafts. And once I get it right, I feel ecstatic. So happy I want to become a whirling dervish, dance around and sing. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But this is what it feels like to be in touch with the deep root of your being.
The following poem is the first one I’ve written since taking the Rumi class. I woke up with the image of the dandelion and how it propagates itself--blazing yellow flower--cottony ball tumbling into wind--and the following spring, another blazing yellow flower. From there, my mind leapt to my children, the death of their father--his cremation, his ashes and the box that held them.
It was interesting for me to see the subtle influences of the Rumi class in this poem--(its facilitator was one of those guides sent to me from beyond). My original title was “Cremation”. It didn’t feel right. The title needed to reveal something about the poem not completely obvious from the content. When I shared it with my daughter (who often acts as a midwife to me during the birth of a poem) we came to realize this one is about transformation and the fluent nature of time-- past, present, and future. It's about Samsara—the Sanskrit word that refers to the theory of death, rebirth and the cyclicality of all life. Something Rumi was very familiar with and was part of his teachings.
Where Time Touches Eternity
At the crematorium, a man in a black suit,
yellow rosebud tucked into his lapel,
hands her a mahogany box carved with sailboats.
“It’s heavier than it looks,” he warns.
“Six pounds, thirteen ounces.”
In the first photo pasted in her baby book,
she is swaddled in a pink blanket,
six pounds, thirteen ounces,
cradled in the crook of her father’s arm.
His face, often stern, is soft,
frozen in wonder as he greets the last
of his five children—the daughter who
thirty years later will mother him
as he moves from professor to toddler--
like a birthing gone backwards.
She will walk him through a meadow of
dandelion blossoms—tiny yellow suns that blaze
and bow with the breeze. For a summer moment,
she’ll pause to weave daisy-chain necklaces and
with a boy’s heart he’ll greet honey bees fat with pollen,
then turn his attention to one flower gone to seed--
a cottony bubble to carry his wishes into the wind.
Though she would always be his child,
he could no longer place himself between
her and the rest of the world, no longer weather
the first blows for her. But for seven years, she
stood up for him, believed her love could save him.
As she straps the box onto the passenger seat,
she hears his voice, as she has many times.
She now knows the dead never stop talking.
This time he says, “Let’s go for ice cream.”
She laughs out loud and pulls into Baskin-Robbins
for his favorite—a double strawberry waffle cone.
Later, she’ll find the tree where he carved their names,
scatter some ashes into the wind—her wish that he,
like the dandelion, might blow across the hillside,
replant himself, then rise up and take a bow.
John Martin Taedu Clayton blowing his wishes into the wind
We all have things in our lives we regret—grief and losses that weigh us down. My brother Grady's death is one such grief for me. He has been dead for 17 years, but it's a rare day I don't think about him, remember something from our childhood when he was the boy who loved me best. He was big brother to me, but often played the father role as well.
He was the one who took off the training wheels and ran along side my wobbly bicycle as I learned to ride. (As many of you know from my earlier blogs, our father was crippled by a grenade during WWII) It was Grady who tightened my roller skates with a key he kept on a string around his neck, taught me how to climb trees and shoot a Beebe gun. In the third grade, Grady took me to my first, and only father/daughter dance. I was so proud of my handsome, big brother. After dinner, when weather permitted, we played outdoors with the neighborhood kids until the street lights came on and told us it was time to go home.
On warm summer evenings, after we’d had our baths and were dressed in pajamas, our mother would sometimes spread a quilt on the grass in the backyard. Grady and I would sprawl out on our backs and look up at the stars. He’d point out the big dipper, but I couldn't see what he saw. He told me to connect the stars with an imaginary line, like in the connect- the-dots books that entertained us on rainy days. And it worked--I saw the big dipper for the first time.
It was also Grady who helped me move into my dorm room and later my first apartment. He used to visit me at the University of Delaware and take me out for dinner. What do I regret? My beautiful brother gained an enormous amount of weight as a middle-aged adult. He became so heavy it was hard for me to look at him. I never, not once, stopped loving him, but I did stop looking at him. And I'm deeply ashamed of that. Beneath the weight, my brother was still there. And all I needed to do was look into his eyes to find him. I miss him so much. Each spring when the forsythia bloom, I look at those clusters of yellow blossoms and think of him.
There are no streetlights in my neighborhood now. But when night falls, I often look up into the star-studded sky and imagine him there, gathering the dust and sprinkling it on the people he loves. It took many years for me to write a poem about the day he died. I will share a portion of it with you—the part where, by the magic or poetry, he is brought back to life. Ironically, I wrote it on the 17th anniversary of his death. It came pouring out of me, as if it had been inside all along, just waiting to be seen.
In the photograph that precedes it, I am three years old and Grady is six. He was a beautiful boy. Adored by his little sister. And now that he is gone, I wish I'd loved him better--especially at the end when it would have mattered so much to him. He loved his family and his church. When he was mobile, he was the first one to offer help to others. And when he was no longer able to move around so easily, he had a telephone ministry with those who were in need of a gentle giant with a sympathetic ear.
My big brother taught me many things in life. In death he taught me to always remember love is so much bigger than embarrassment or shame. None of us are perfect. And maybe it is the imperfect who are the truly beautiful people--the real heroes among us.
THIS WEIGHT I CARRY
On the March day my brother’s big heart
stopped beating, forsythia burst into
yellow blossoms outside his bedroom window
and one crocus opened its purple-petaled eye.
Each blade of grass seemed numbered as it bent
beneath black boots that marched him across his yard.
Neighbors spoke in soft whispers,
clutched Bibles fat with mercy for their home-bound
church brother. As his body was taken away,
they hung their heads, then hurried home
to bake him chocolate cakes and casseroles.
How easy it is to love what is gone.
As minutes tick back into memory, I disassemble
my big brother and me. Break us apart like
pieces of a gigantic puzzle, fragments of love
stronger than obsession, fear or shame.
When I connect them to the place fantasy and longing merge,
we will stretch our arms, weightless as wings, and fly.
Together we’ll wade barefoot in the shallow creek
behind our house in Collins Park, listen to our mother
sing hymns in the garden while sun dries our mud pies
on the flat rocks. We’ll hold our funeral processions
for dead birds, oatmeal-box coffins lined with
fragrant orange peels that linger on our fingertips.
The ebony trill of my clarinet in the summer air.
Last week I attended the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference in Seattle where Bob Dugoni (A New York Times best-selling author) talked about the reasons we write. According to Bob, the first step in writing is to know who you are as a writer. Knowing this will help you understand the stories you write and why you write them. I'd never thought about this before. And in the process of thinking about it, I realized he was right-- my novel characters are born of me. They are not me, but they are always of me.
I also know I write stories and poems about relationships. I am defined by my family of origin and the children I birthed and love. Bob suggested we write down 5 things that define us. This is a good exercise for everyone--not only writers. It illuminates your life in so many ways--shows you who and why you are. I challenge you to try it.
In my list, I included my mother's early death from breast cancer, the way she sang gospel while she worked in her garden and how those songs influenced my love of language and poetry. I listed the stories my father told me about his childhood during the great Depression, the death of his mother when he was six-years old, his alcoholic father and the way his siblings were separated--either adopted or farmed out to other family members. I included the bookmobile that stopped on our street and filled my young life with walls of stories. I listed the 1,000 square foot house I shared with my parents and four brothers. The extended family living on the same street and the way holidays were filled with drama and laughter.
But, perhaps most significantly, the first thing on my list was the grenade that blew up in my father's hand during his basic training at Ft. Jackson. It's odd, in a way, because this event took place before I and three of my four brothers were born. Yet, in many ways, that bomb exploded in our lives as well. We were all profoundly affected by it. This smiling photograph of my dad was taken just three weeks before the grenade. In it, I see a beautiful boy, in love with my mother, optimistic for a bright future, and innocent of what awaits him.
To illustrate how this event still haunts me, I'm going to share a poem written a few weeks ago. I thought I'd said everything I needed to say about my dad and that grenade. I was wrong. Maybe we writers spend a lifetime trying to understand the one thing that most defines us.
WHOM SHALL WE BLAME?
On that July day in nineteen forty-four
you are eighteen, a country boy,
crawling through combat training at Ft. Jackson.
You see the piece of mud-caked metal
nuzzled beside a Hickory stump.
Too innocent to know there are things
we can reach for but shouldn’t,
you dig it out with your bare hands,
dust the treasure off on your khaki sleeve,
then toss it across the narrow field
of high grasses and bright yellow
dandelions to your best friend.
He turns it over, sniffs for a clue.
The smell takes him home….
Rich earth and shell-shaped blossoms
in his wife’s summer garden.
Baffled, he runs toward you,
pitches it back, an impromptu
baseball game between battle maneuvers.
When you reach up to catch it,
the pin dislodges and the grenade,
leftover from another war, explodes.
The boom reverberates for miles,
lifts your friend into a faultless sky,
a hero’s grave in Arlington.
Now, so many years later, I imagine
your hand, my father’s hand,
its long, blood-stained fingers,
buried with the pieced-together fragments
of your lost friend. That when his wife is led,
as memory will, into that yesterday, she
carries a bouquet of fresh gardenias,
steps inside the perfect rows
of white crosses and kneels in thick,
fragrant grass beside the miniature flag
on his grave. She bows her head,
prays for her husband,
and she prays for your hand.
One of the reasons I write stories, journals, poems and novels is to catalog my life and make sense of it. I write to preserve moments that would vanish if I didn’t.
We all consume dozens of stories every day. We read books and newspapers. We watch television and listen to the radio. We even hear stories standing in line at the local grocery store.
The death of my son’s favorite stuffed animal, Henry, was a gradual process, but the realization came suddenly for me. One night, at 2:00 a.m., I tiptoed into my son’s room, as I often did. I looked at the blonde head of a little boy nearly four years old and it seemed like only last week I’d put a baby to bed. But something was wrong. David’s arm wasn’t wrapped around his stuffed dog, Henry. In fact, Henry was no where to be seen.
I found Henry in the bottom drawer of David’s dresser—the one he used for his toys and “important papers.” I closed the drawer quickly. I preferred to remember Henry doing a silly little dance at the foot of David’s bed, or flying in from Dulles Airport just in time to sleep with his human friend. We created a special voice and vocabulary for Henry—very dog like, I believed—but I’m sure David thought of Henry as his brother and a product of his own mom and dad. I guess that’s not too far from the truth as we did make Henry come alive and develop his own unique personality. Henry even had a son—an exact replica of the old man except in miniature. David called him "Pup".
Henry travelled thousands of miles and shared many a bed with David. He took several airplane trips and travelled cross-country in the back of our station wagon with his head resting on David’s pillow. One time, David was holding him outside the car window so he could feel the wind on his ears and accidentally dropped Henry on the busy freeway. I risked my life to go back and grab that stuffed dog before he was crushed under the wheels of 18-wheeler.
I sewed a new nose on Henry and repaired a battered ear. One time I reattached his tail and laughingly called it hemorrhoid surgery. But Henry was the real doctor in the family and his devotion to David was unwavering. I can still see him in the hospital crib under the oxygen tent the many times David had croup. I remember the way my son clutched Henry in his arms while the doctor stitched the back of his head.
When we were toilet training David, Henry wore a pair of thick cotton training pants, too. David would pick him up and race into the bathroom and if he was too late, he’d hug Henry against his chest, pat him on the back and say, “It’s okay Henny. You is only yearning.”
For four years, Henry was an active and vital member of our family. Perhaps, in the lifespan of a stuffed dog, that’s not bad. What can I say? “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boy.” I couldn’t blame David. He was growing up. “Painted wings and giant rings make room for other toys.” I only know that as we get older it’s hard to give up anything we love and I loved Henry, too.
UPDATE: David is now a father. When his son, John Martin Taedu Clayton, was born with jaundice he spent an extra day in the hospital nursery under a special light. David wrapped him in the blanket I'd made for David when he was an infant. He took me into the nursery to see his son--and there, tucked inside my grandson’s bassinet, was Henry’s pup—watching over a new generation.