--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
As I write this blog, propped up in bed and waiting for the phone to ring, I realize I’m returning from an involuntary, two-week vacation. What have I, who spends even vacation days writing, done during those two weeks? You’ll probably be sorry you asked. Well, you didn’t ask, but I think you know I’m about to tell you.
Nearly two weeks ago, I woke up on a Sunday morning and was unable to get out of bed. I could not make my legs, especially my right one, function. I couldn’t walk. I kept trying, but my body kept screaming NO. I was in the most horrific pain I’ve ever experienced. It was worse than labor. Well, let me modify that, it was like labor but without the breaks between contractions. Finally, at his wits end from coaxing and my screams, my husband, Andy, called an ambulance before one of our neighbors called the police. Embarrassing, right?
But there I am wheeled out my front door and loaded into an ambulance. When flat on my back and not moving, I felt fine. So I decided I should take advantage of this opportunity to do research and study the ambulance. I asked the ENT dozens of questions. What was his job like? Did he enjoy it? Tell me about your typical day. I asked about the purpose of everything in the rig. A writer never knows when she'll need to describe the inside of an ambulance. I paid close attention to what I (the patient) could actually see out the back window. I had a great view of the tops of tall pines and conifer trees, the bright sky and when we had enough distance between us, my husband in hot pursuit in our white Prius.
The hospital emergency room was a bit of a nightmare. They did not know what to do with me after the very efficient ENT’s used a sheet to transfer me from the gurney into an ER bed. Grants Pass has no neurosurgeon on call, so they became intent on getting me to stand up and walk, determined to succeed no matter what it took. It took 2 intravenous morphine drips, 1 intravenous steroid injection, and two oral oxycodone before I could stumble off the bed and into a wheel chair. I was discharged and whisked out to the car--feeling drunker than I've ever been in my life (and I’ve been known to enjoy a little wine now and then)
The ER folks emphasized how serious this could be, encouraged me to follow up with my primary (who turned out to be in Africa--but that's in the next part of the saga.) So Andy drove me back home, both of us shaking our heads at the futility of what we’d just done—the expense would hit us later. We struggled to get me out of the car and into bed. Once the drugs wore off, I was right back where I started, flat on my back and unable to get up.
On Monday, we called a Medford neurosurgeon with a very good reputation, but were told we needed a referral from my primary care physician. As you already know, he is vacationing in Africa. Making a trip there for the referral was out of the question.
On Tuesday, I was referred to another internal medicine physician at the Grants Pass Clinic. The logistics of getting me to the clinic was a feat my husband pulled off by renting a walker and utilizing one of the clinic wheelchairs for the remainder of the journey. By the time I arrived, I looked like a homeless person and probably smelled worse. No way I could get in the shower or wash my hair--and no way I cared. But I did learn something new: If you are in a wheelchair, you don't have to get on the friggin’ scale and be weighed. See, there are gifts in everything. I'm looking on the bright side now--searching out the rainbows. Thinking I might want a wheelchair for Christmas.
This doctor was sympathetic, knew what I was dealing with. He wrote the neurosurgeon referral, scheduled an MRI and gave me a prescription for Hydromorphone—a morphine derivative. I endured three more days of pain, but it was a bit more manageable with the morphine--not that I could walk around--but I could zone out in front of decade-old episodes of Law and Order and forget. I slept a lot during those days, moaned and got very constipated from the Morphine. So, now my main diet is a cocktail of prune juice and morphine. It’s a lot darker than scotch, but you can close your eyes and pretend.
By Friday, I'd developed some strange neurological things, (SNT’s) like muscles that would suddenly twitch--move around under my skin an ADHD infant ready to escape the womb. These SNT’s came out of nowhere at any time, day or night. I also had a severe, sunburn-like pain on the skin of my back—as if all the nerve endings were on fire. It was so intense I couldn't stand for the fabric of my pajamas to touch the skin. One night, around one a.m., I ripped off my pajama top (who cares about buttons) because I couldn't take the pain. Andy sat up in bed, wiped his eyes with his fists and wondered if I was in the mood. I asked him if he had a gun. He didn’t even make a joke. He knew what I meant.
On Friday at noon, I had the MRI—a wonderful experience when all your nerves are already ignited. I was listening to classical music in the white tunnel while the jackhammers pounded and my skin crawled—a surreal experience, inviting the SNT’s to return. And, of course, they did. "Don't move," the technician kept warning. I wasn't moving. I was being moved by SNT's. I feared I'd be wheeled to the psych ward if I spoke of this. So I remained silent.
After it was over, we asked them to make sure the results got sent to our Medford neurosurgeon. Apparently that did happen because on Monday an appointment was set up for me on Tuesday. It turned out I have a ruptured disk that is spilling its nucleus onto the sciatic nerve at L4 causing terrible pain and weakness in my right leg. (I could have told them that pain part) Apparently, it's a bad one, and I'm at risk for permanent nerve damage. Bottom line I need urgent surgery.
"Great," I said. "Schedule it. Can you do it now? Cut off the damn leg. I don't care what you do, kill me, but please...please...make this pain go away." The Physician’s Assistant smiled sympathetically. "Nerve pain," he said. "Does not go away. I could give you morphine and break your ankle and you’d say it’s not so bad. I could give you morphine for nerve pain and you’d give me the finger." At least the guy had a sense of humor.
He poked me with needles that I couldn't feel and tried to electrocute me (exaggeration, but it seemed like it) My right leg is pretty useless now--just drags along behind me and my walker like an obedient but lazy puppy. The neurosurgeon is hopeful the surgery will bring most of the feeling back.
The office staff tried to get the procedure scheduled for the following day, Wednesday, but Medicare requires it be done in a hospital operating room, not the surgical suite ordinarily used by this neurosurgeon and his associates--which is much less expensive and actually safer for the patient. Apparently Medicare has other bureaucratic ideas of efficiency and financial responsibility. So we must wait until insurance is approved and a hospital OR is available. It will possibly be tomorrow (Friday) but more likely Tuesday. (with Monday being a holiday) The physician gave me a prescription for a steroid pack that starts with 6 tablets first day, down to 5 second day, 4 third day, etc and you are down to zero. He said it might relieve some of the inflammation and lesson the pain until we get the surgery scheduled. Now I am on the Prune juice, morphine, and steroid cocktail, waiting for the phone to ring and surgery to be scheduled. Remarkably, I am in less pain and could actually concentrate on writing this blog about what we writers do on their days off. I hope I don’t have any more vacations in my future. Just keep the SNT’s away from me and let me write.
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.
"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."
Every time I read that quote, I think about the concentration camp survivors we hosted during a Holocaust presentation at Rogue Community College in Grants Pass, Oregon. Most of them were quite old and they’d just begun to tell the stories they’d kept inside. I was horrified and I was mesmerized by their words, by their courage and humility. One man, over dinner at our kitchen table, said something I will never forget. When asked how his life had been changed by his years in a concentration camp where he lost his entire family, he replied. “It made me more kind.”
Stories are our conscience. They teach truth and a respect for the past. Stories are like our connective tissue, they link us to the lives of others. If we keep telling and writing them, perhaps they will keep us human. Anne Frank was a thirteen-year-old child who wrote a diary while hiding in an attic. She didn’t survive, but her words did—inspiring and haunting us for generations.
After hosting those Holocaust survivors and hearing their stories, I needed to write something—to connect in a heartfelt way—to add my voice and speak for the ones who'd died and were not heard. I needed to imagine myself as someone who'd experienced at least something of the horror. This poem came out of that need.
All night I stood waiting
for sun to fill the room’s small window,
the glass still black where I paused
looking out as if for a signal
and remembering how dawn
releases the trees, mountains and each
fence from its shadow.
Still holding the nightfall between my hands
I whisper, “It will come.”
The dark yields slowly and this day
might have traveled here from the other side
of the earth, an avenue in Warsaw and a house
where a man has paced since midnight
the musty stillness of his attic, thinking
each time a board creaked that soldiers
moved on the stairs and imagining
that these would be his last moments.
Words like moths kicked up
from the tall grass could
trace his story back to its ink.
He knows the meaning of all time is words--
those small, unstoppable sounds
that fold, finger by finger,
across our bodies.
He would understand morning
is a kind of reprieve, its slow coming
the affirmation of everything night
called into question, and he might believe
that light passes from country to country,
one man to another, a sharing
that becomes personal like the space
between the living and the dead--
that otherness inside us we never touch
no matter how far down our hands might reach.
Time has passed since we housed those Holocaust survivors. We now have a granddaughter, Shenoa, who is the age you were when you wrote your diary. I think of her, I think of you. I salute your courage, Anne Frank. The way you left a message, a legacy, a poignant reminder of what it means to be human. I pray Shenoa will be brave like you. That she will have the courage to speak her truth, that she will never lose faith in mankind. That she will always believe in the goodness of the human heart.