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--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.





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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.


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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. 

Susan Clayton-Goldner
 
 
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
 Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
 doesn't make any sense.

From Essential Rumi

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For me, as I suspect is true for many writers, I need to write about powerful experiences before I can fully comprehend them.  This Christmas my son and his family from Chicago rented a house In La Jolla and we travelled down from Oregon to spend Christmas together.  My daughter lives in San Diego. The day before we arrived, their father, my ex-husband of almost 30 years, was admitted to the hospital.  He has been suffering from Alzheimer's Disease for several years. 

December 20,  2014 – I am in the hospital in La Jolla with my two kids and their dad who is near death.  He has pneumonia and a urinary tract infection. He can’t eat or drink anything without aspirating it. And he can't cough. So he is receiving no nourishment.  He looks as if he weighs about 80 pounds. His directive indicates he does not want a feeding tube, so I suspect he will die while we are here or shortly after we leave. 

When I stood over John's bed, he was awake and his face broke out in a big smile when he saw me. He was having a lucid day and he knew exactly who I was. It was clear he wanted to say something to me, but his voice was barely more than a whisper. I put my face very close to his and he said, "I'm sorry." It was heartbreaking, but beautiful and sincere. I told him I was sorry, too. I told him it was okay. 

After the divorce, we made a big effort to stay friendly, to share holidays so the children didn't have to choose between their parents. I'm not saying there weren't rough times, there were, but something fundamentally strong and good remained between us. 

December 25, 2014


This turn of events certainly changed the face of Christmas.  But not in the way one would expect.  In many ways, it was the best Christmas ever. John gave us the kind of gifts that matter. The ones you don't have to unwrap or open. He gave us moments of lucidity, laughter, forgiveness, reunion, memories, and his profound courage as he fought to hang on a little longer. Our family was reunited in this final act of love.  

It will be with heavy hearts that David and I leave La Jolla tomorrow, but we are comforted by Hospice and the enormous support and relief they have already provided to Bonnie. She has worked hard and long on her father's behalf. He could not have had a better advocate or daughter.  My heart is bursting with pride for these two remarkable adults our children have become. 

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It is hard to see my grown children crying as they so tenderly care for him. They read to him from I Corinthians.  As I watch them, I see such love on their faces.  I suppose no one can ask for more than to be surrounded by the people who love you as you pass over. At first I thought I'd be really uncomfortable here--what is my role? John and I divorced nearly 30 years ago. And yet what I see is that love doesn't die.  You can get pretty angry with someone, but if you ever loved, you always will.  

There has never been a time in my life when I've been more proud of Bonnie and Dave as they watch over their dad as he passes from this life into the next. Today, they read to him again from I Corinthians—such an incredibly beautiful passage about what it really means to love—and before we left, they stood together at his bedside singing acapella every verse of Amazing Grace--one of John's favorites. The halls in the hospital quieted as others stopped to listen. All I could do was stand beside them with tears streaming down my face. What a testament to the power of love. I have been blessed with incredible children and how could I not continue to love, on some level, the man who made them with me.


December 26, 2014


This morning my son and I visited the assisted care facility to say goodbye to his dad. We both knew we wouldn't see him alive in this life again. He looked so small, still, and weak. Hospice has taken over his care and no extraordinary measures are being given to keep him alive. He is fed only if he asks for food. I stood by his bedside for a moment, touched his cheek and kissed him on the forehead, whispered, "I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places." His eyes fluttered, but didn't open. I stepped back and our son moved into my spot.

When David spoke, his father opened his eyes and said, "Davey, I'm trapped in this cage," then shut his eyes again. Dave and I spent a few moments crying in each other’s arms. I told him he'd been a wonderful son and that his father had been proud of him his entire life. I told him that I saw his father when I watched David be daddy to his own small children. 

 
And then we left the room, closed the door and walked out to the car. There were no more words.

As Rumi said, "The world was too full to talk about."



 
 
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Ressurecting Henry

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. 


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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.