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Memories on Memorial Day

Memorial Day 2011
And still it is not enough, to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the immense patience to wait till they are come again. For the memories themselves are still nothing. Not till they have turned to blood within us, to glance and gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves - not till then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.
- Rainer Maria Rilke

My husband is buried above the wild and tumultuous Spokane River, down from the high train trestle bridges we call the "wishing trains" because we so often whisper secret wishes as we cross under the train cars suspended high above. They thunder overhead on their way across the continental U.S., great diesels hauling container goods, crops, oil and chemicals, slatted stock cars swaying down the tracks before they disappear through granite cuts into narrow pine valleys. My husband quite liked the idea that he would have a view of the river and the trains. Nature and commerce. Chaos and fortune. Our lives are ruled by them.

Today, cemetery breezes wave ribbons of color along narrow paths that are lined with the stars and stripes. Families with lost looks on their faces, clutching plot grids, wander the acres under the ponderosa looking for the buried but not forgotten. Children's hands are tucked in the adults', and in the little fists more small flags, bunches of lilacs. America does not forget its loved ones. It does not forget its soldiers. Yet the numbers buried in the green shade seem to be a continuous sea of monuments. A new engraved stone, a simple bench, stands next to my husband's - a nineteen year old boy, lost in Afghanistan. Somebody's son, someone's brother. There were two flags flying in his honor, the gift of a baseball mitt.

Bending low, I place a flag in the ground the requisite distance (a boot length away) from my husband's marker. A Vietnam era Air Force veteran, he was proud of his service. He met men in those years who were friends and mentors. I couldn't help but think of our own boy, now twenty, at the US Naval Academy. His life is at a crux point as well. What direction will it turn? How will he think of his service, years from now? National service opens us to the community beyond family - opens us to the identity we share as Americans. Whether in the military services, the Peace Corps, Teach for America, the USO, the Red Cross - take a moment to thank the next young or old person you meet giving of themselves to all of America.

This fall my daughter will run her first half-marathon for Team USO - proud of our soldiers, her brother, her father, and all those whose names she does not know who came before her and follow her now. Service requires only that we show up, hands open and ready to do whatever work needs doing. Let the poems of your memories carry the day.

And finally, as I think of my son and how proud his father would be of him, as I wonder about his future, I think of Eric Greitens, the decorated Navy war hero and author of "The Heart and the Fist - The Education of a Humanitarian, The Making of a Seal." Eric penned a personal note to my son on the title page - "Follow your heart and continue to live with courage." Words that might inspire us all I think.

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Morning Coffee

Cannon Beach sandcastle
so early it's already too late
to say I never wanted to cross
into a wholly rational state,

to upend the coffee grounds like a sand
castle into the sink and rise
to the occasion of day, another

- from "Wreckage," Mary Jo Salter

Back from one of life's grand moments - the peak of accomplishment, the dizzying ledge of the "Big View"- I find myself rising early this drizzly gray morning and tending to the tasks of simple living, all the while wondering at this balance between the extraordinary and the ordinary.

We build our roads brick by humble brick. We pack our shoulder bags with provisions for the day - food, water, compass, shelter, warmth, book and song. We then head out into the hours of unknown, hopeful and determined. The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tse is often quoted, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." And so it is in these early mornings, standing by the sink with our cups of steaming coffee, that daily we mark our lives. Not poised at the grand mountain tops, but on the wandering trail that takes us there. We leave these magnificent view points along the way. Set course for the next adventure before us. And in this way, sand castles rise to the occasion of another day.
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Hello, Sun

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and the crotchety -

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light -
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.
- Mary Oliver

I'm leaving for New Haven on Friday. Flying east across the continent. Excited to sit in the sun and celebrate my daughter's joyful achievement; watching, with the other parents, the first beat of a garden of wet new wings, brilliant as butterflies from the chrysalis. I will hold my breath to hear the music of her future unfolding before her as she walks the lawn to shake the hands of the scholars and educators who have made such a tremendous impact on her life. I will be sitting beside my son, and for the three of us, this moment will mirror a future we never could have imagined the day we lost Ken. He would be so proud. He is part of all that has made this moment possible. And although the physical world is our boundary - it both giveth and taketh away - on this day spirits will soar. For we are the promise of the morning.

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Against the Bland: An Unexpected Answer

Freshman Year, Yale 2007

Expansion occurs when I open to a new thought or idea, or when I allow a question to attract an unexpected answer.
- "Daily Word," May 16, 2011

Change of wind on the weather vane today. In a week I will watch with a bursting heart as my daughter earns her college degree. I will sit in the sun on a folding chair in the company of other silently proud parents observing similar cornerstone moments in the lives of cherished sons and daughters. A recent opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times addressed the seemingly unfounded optimism of college graduates. What is it about this moment that poises us all on the brink, believing, fully, in a future of unlimited possibilities? It is an authentic moment of expansion. We are in the crux: witness to the intellectual power of young minds that will unleash unimaginable potential. Unexpected answers to old problems. Fresh solutions to our generation's dogged failures. Where we ourselves have stalled out solving the great dilemmas of the world, the young carry the hopes of the many forward.

"The Key Lime," writes Campbell McGrath in his pithy poem - "Curiously yellow hand-grenade/ of flavor; Molotov-cocktail / for a revolution against the bland." Young minds are the explosive key limes of our times. Let us celebrate that bright tang of intelligence and enthusiasm. Let us wish them well as the graduates of 2011 take all we have saved of the lessons of the past and invent new answers for the future. Shatter old paradigms. Let us be proud of the next generation, proud of continuity, and remember, for a moment, we ourselves were once the sharp bite on staid thinking. It's never too late to rethink the question and find an unexpected answer.
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Been Here Feeling

So let us think of people as starting life with an experience they forget, and ending it with one which they anticipate but cannot understand.
- E. M. Forster

What Forster has to say is rather interesting to me, as he refers to transitions and memory. Do we actually remember anything of our gestational or early years? Might experience be imprinted in our memories but overlaid with ensuing experience, layers deep and rarely accessed? Or do we simply feel our way into the world, retain nothing, and as we end our years think of "What next?" with a certain curiosity with nothing else to go on?

I think the idea of faith is frequently thought of as a belief system that marries the principles of a religious teaching to whatever personal confidence we bring to that which we cannot prove but believe is true. I prefer just the latter idea, belief skinned from any religious instruction or ritual overlay. Faith as just the bare bones of believing in what as yet we cannot confirm. What is interesting to me is that we do anticipate the unknown, however shaky that faith may be. There is something in human nature that strengthens with hope, and embraces it. We hold hope close in the heart, throughout life. I imagine faith is strengthened when hope is renewed, and tested when it is not. But the full consciousness of human life - who and what we are - does not travel lightly through this world. We bring all that we are to the finish. I like what that says about us, our souls, that we live and age with anticipation. We are about growth, about transformation. Our souls are primed for evolution. Why would this be so if there were no purpose in the design? Here I am again, at that "Been Here" awareness, bumping up against what I feel and do not know.
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When the Heart Leaps Up

Photo credit: The Digital Photography School

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
-William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

A friend gave me an essay to read by the Jewish scholar Rabbi Harold Schulweis that spoke of what he termed the "Two Faces of God." Loosely interpreted in my thinking this is the thought that in scripture, Elohim, the face of "what is" (reality), is balanced by the face of Adonai, or "possibility" (transformation). As humans we dwell in a natural world governed by natural law, and yet we also float in the vast potential of change, making our way in the unknown possible. We are partners in the transformation of our own lives. Through faith, through determination and desire, through the unexpectedness of grace, even chance - we open ourselves from what is to what might be. An unanswered prayer may reflect the dominance of "what is," but the answered prayer may reveal the mysterious leverage of the human soul.

The poem by Wordsworth, and the idea of natural piety - our awareness of the sacredness in nature - is my stepping stone to what my friend calls "the God space," the place you go inside your own soul to manage the fluctuations of life. Be it meditation, temple or church, prayer or song, a walk by the river, a hard run through the sunlight - this is where we go to find center, the space where stillness lies and listening begins, where we can accept and understand both what is, and what we are called to strive for. Piety links our days, as the poet put it, builds our spiritual grounding from the child to the adult as we attend to the beauty of the world in equal pace with its hardship. Beauty does not dilute the impact of difficulty, but it reminds us that transformation is the natural order of things. Neither nature nor hardship remains static; life is fluid, and what is changes. If we find ourselves at an ebb point, we abide in patience for the flow of good. No one is ever given solely a measure of good or bad in life. But sometimes, we need to be reminded to notice the rainbow.
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The Day As it Arises

Palouse Hills

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
- Charles Dickens

On a long hard run this morning on a cool blue sky day, the kind of run that is neither uplifting nor empowering but a grind and a push of the mind on the body, more driving a balky horse in the traces than unified soul, I realized I was missing the voice of the Divine. Where had it gone? That clear inner tone within those still moments that all my life writ large on unsolvable problems, brought peace, vision? Why, when I had so much to consider and weigh, was the only sound that of my heart pounding, the workhorse in my chest driving my legs on and on? I accepted the vacancy of meaning in my thinking, I surrendered, and let it be. And as I did, I realized that this surrender was the task at hand: a day to practice my faith in Faith. I would practice what I believed was truth - just because. The working muscle of what faith seems to mean: to the faithful Faith will come. My own version of a baseball field in a cornfield.

Recently, a member of my family has had to struggle with a serious health issue, the kind that ripples down through the best laid plans and cripples our optimism life is both good and manageable. My role as support and resource to this person I love has been challenged by my frightened desire to fall on my knees in prayer and say softly, "Please." That is not the statement of faith, but a petition. Faith reminds me that things unfold as they are meant to, and that, as the 16th century prayer has it, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

One of the themes of the next few blogs will be this idea of spiritual grace. When we seek divine grace, do we hope for small miracles in our lives, or for the calmness, the space, that allows the miraculous in life? There is a fine and subtle difference. Do we wait for grace, or move over on the bench and invite it in? I hope you'll join me in this dialog.
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USNA Midshipmen Sea Trials 2010

Let your suffering eyes
and your anonymous deaths
be the bridle that keeps us from straying from each other

be the cinch that fastens us to each day

as it gallops away, hooves sparking into the night.
- from "Nine Horses," Billy Collins

I struggled today to find the right words to express my relief, and gritty satisfaction, yes, satisfaction, regarding the final capture and death of Usama bin Laden. I, pacifist and defender of the vulnerable - wilderness to wildlife - wept for weeks in the aftermath of 9/11, my faith in humanity at a precarious edge. Last night this same me fist pumped the air, heart overcome, celebrating alongside memories growing up in a Cold War era Air Force family, ghosts of a grandfather and uncles killed in action in World War II, comrades at the US State Department who languished years in Iranian imprisonment, my son at the US Naval Academy.

The young men and women of the US Naval Academy, committed to the defense of our nation and its principles, streamed into the courtyard on news of bin Laden's death, chanting "USA! USA!" Outbreaks of the exuberant Springsteen anthem, "Born in the USA" filled the night. The midshipmen cheered at the footsteps of the home of the Superintendent of the Academy, who shouted, "Damn the torpedos!" to which they roared, "Full speed ahead!" breaking into patriotic song. The Commandant of the Academy recounted his command at sea on 9/11 and his pledge to his crew during those hours of massive loss of innocent life that "some how or other we will get" the vicious unknown enemy behind so much hatred and death. The mids cheered his words, chanting "I believe! I believe that we have WON!" For these young warriors, this moment is one of THE defining moments of their lives. Many of their own form SEAL Team 6, the elite Special Ops force that conducted the successful and courageous raid in Pakistan. That terrorist compound now one less place these young men and women will be sent to fight.

One big step for freedom, and it came in the quiet, professional, surgical fashion of a military committed to getting the job done - right.

The lines from Billy Collins are from a poem reflecting on a sculpture of nine horse heads, hung in collective, stoic witness. The words simply mean this to me: We are bound by blood memory, from those innocents lost on 9/11 to this moment today. In the words of our Commander in Chief, President Barack Obama, "Justice has been done."
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