Our lives are built of moments in time and space. And just as one moment of your life doesn’t define you, so one poem doesn’t define a poet.
Some moments of my life I wouldn’t want anyone to remember. Some moments beg interpretation. But not every moment of life warrants being grappled with or immortalized in a poem.
Some of my poems come out of my humanness / humanity; some come from the living workings out of faith; some come out of my searching, listening, and questioning; some poems come out of the sensations of a moment in time.
Some moments that inspire poems are microcosms of creation’s cosmic array, snapshots of life’s bigger pictures. Some poetic moments are unique flashes or epiphanies that I wish could be repeated but will likely never come again, at least not quite the same. These moments can change us if we allow them to, if we open our hearts to receive what they have to give. I think that is true, to some extent, of poetry as well.
I don’t sit down to make lines and rhymes, but to use words, rhythms, and metaphors to paint pictures of life’s moments of observing, noticing, being present to someone or something in a new way … of seeing a sometimes-startling new depth or aspect or facet of a fleeting, evocative, life-giving moment.
Poems come to the poet out of living moments that, penciled on paper, morph into verses of word art that can bring meaning to the reader’s own moments.
I wasn’t just crying, I was wailing. I had traveled five-thousand miles to see my father and I missed him by a few hours. He had gone where there are no more tears and I was left to mourn and cry buckets of them in the days and weeks that followed that fateful day years ago. That the Father called him home suddenly, that he passed peacefully and at the ripe old age of eighty five, persuades me to agree with the British journalist Julie Burchill when she says, “Tears are sometimes an inappropriate response to death. When a life has been lived completely honestly, completely successfully or just completely, the correct response to death’s perfect punctuation mark is a smile.”
The smiles came later.
But how glad I am for the sweet release of crying, the catharsis that tears provide, and the commonality of the experience to all of us. At times, our lives seem to float on an ocean of tears and sometimes we feel that we are drowning in their salty sea. I got to thinking about those drops of fluid that flow from our eyes and what volumes they speak of the condition of the human heart. What is this curious creation, what are the causes, the kinds and the cultural connotations of crying?
The dictionary definition calls a tear a drop of clear, salty liquid that is secreted by the lachrymal gland to lubricate the surface of the eyeball and wash away irritants. This marvelous process goes on continuously and it is only when emotion triggers a profusion of the fluid that we are aware of the phenomenon known as crying. In the Russian language, there are seven distinct words to describe the various properties of tears. There is a word for large ones, one for clear tears, and another two for both hot tears and salty ones. Yet other selections describe the abundant as well as the sparse and a word that specifically depicts tears falling rapidly one after another. Many of us will have shed some of these and some of us, all of the above.
Various emotions evoke tears. Generally known as more negative, the emotions of anger, frustration, self-pity and manipulation certainly cause crying. Then tears are expected and accepted when we experience sadness, grief, joy or compassion. Perhaps there is a mix of these emotions in all of our tears. I suspect so, for even in the sorrow over my father’s death there was certainly self-pity at the prospect of life without his presence. Hence the inability to smile. Sorrow would have turned to celebration if I could have cast my thoughts heavenward. Perhaps compassion commands the purest of tears. Yet, there is an undeniable element of anger even as we are moved to deep weeping over an abused or starving child, for example. We are angry and frustrated over the inexplicable inequities of life even though we tenderly suffer with the victim. No matter what their etiology, tears are therapeutic and God-designed. Through the voice of Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens declares, “It opens the lungs, washes the countenance, exercises the eyes and softens down the temper; so cry away.”
When my sons were small, I encouraged them to “cry away.” I told them, “God gave you the same apparatus as he gave girls when he installed lachrymal glands in your eyes.” So they learned what to this day they still unashamedly do, they let the tears fall when they or others around them hurt. Back then it was scraped knees when they fell on the playground, now it is the bitter bruises of dreams dashed in the playing field of adulthood. I am saddened to see little boys fight back the tears just because society still generally deems it sissy to cry. I witnessed such a little fellow at an airport recently as he said good bye to his Dad. He bravely stifled his sobs and wiped away the telltale tears with his sleeve while his sister, of similar age, cried loudly and lustily.
I had learned from my father that the dignity and beauty of tears is as much the domain of men as of women. Although raised as a stoic Scotsman, he could never get through telling the story of Abraham offering up Isaac without crying. Still less the account of Calvary and the suffering of the Savior he loved. Christ Jesus, who was both God and the man of all men who wept. The brief account in John 11:33-36 often provokes debate as to why he was crying. I like to think that he simply felt the pain of those around him who mourned the loss of Lazarus.
The scriptures are not shy to tell us tales of tears. Not surprisingly, Job is recorded crying. In chapter 16 and verse 20 he says, “My friends scorn me: but mine eye poureth tears unto God.” Friends and family may grow weary of our crying and they may consider it attention getting, weakness or histrionics. However, we will always have the caress and the uncritical, caring attention of our Father. Jeremiah the weeping prophet, so named for his proclivity to tears, wails, “Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jer. 9:1). He, in common with us, experienced the place where the tears have dried up but the sorrow is still unstaunched. Mothers can relate to Rachel weeping for her children who were no longer there (Jer. 31:15). Some of the deepest grief must undoubtedly come from the loss of a child to untimely death, estrangement or to the land of the prodigal. However, the Lord exhorted Rachel to stop for there is hope in the end.
From the pen of David who wept through the gamut of human emotions, comes these wonderful words “Thou tellest my wanderings: put my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?” (Psalm 56:8). Here David is alluding to the ancient burial custom of collecting the tears of mourners in a bottle and putting them in the tomb of the departed. Greater than the reference to the grave, is what we glean of the tender care of our Father. He cares about and counts our tears as he does the number of hairs on our head and records the most mundane and intimate of our hearts’ experiences. He noted that little boy at the airport!
But, like Rachel, we know there is an end to our tears. They belong only to this frame of time and space. That great and glorious promise beckons us beyond the present picture when we read “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Rev. 21:4). At the very same time that I wept over the aching loss of my father, our heavenly Father was gently wiping away my Dad’s tears, whispering that the promise had come true. “My beloved child; your crying days are over.” Smile indeed. Smile forevermore.
The grip of grief has slackened its shackles
Hope, the thin, unbroken thread stretches
to permit a spring in the step
Hope, the harbinger of happy
highlights bright color and contrast
Though life is air brushed in sadness,
though tears still wait willingly in the wings,
They serve now to baptize a reluctant convert
into a new and different life
Hope springs eternal…
Like everyone else, Cladach has felt the effects and isolation of the virus. Especially in these ways:
Amazon, where many of our sales happen, has de-prioritized orders, sales, and shipping of books during the pandemic as they concentrate on shipping more urgently needed items. But, the good news is we’ve heard from customers that their orders are on the way. Amazon has our books in stock and will fulfill orders, though the ship time may be longer than usual. So go ahead and place those orders!
Postponed spring titles and uncertain release dates. But the following books will release in 2020 (dates to be announced):
A BRAVE LIFE by Janyne McConnaughey, PhD
BIBLE POEMS by Donna Marie Merritt
UNPAUSED : Poems by Alice Scott-Ferguson
Author events cancelled. Here are a few examples:
Catherine Lawton (that’s me) was scheduled to teach three workshops at the Colorado Christian Writers Conference, which had to be canceled, but conference director Marlene Bagnull says she plans to save the 2020 program in 2021. Conferees can look forward to my workshops on these topics in May 2021 in Estes Park, Colorado: 1) Poetry, 2) Creative Nonfiction, 3) Marketing
Janyne McConnaughey (author of BRAVE and now living in Seattle) has had to cancel her early May trip to Colorado Springs, where she was scheduled to participate in the Mountain of Authors event and do a book signing at a local shop.
Alice Scott-Ferguson had anticipated a trip in April to Monument, Colorado for a Pen Women’s event, meeting with friends, authors and readers and selling copies ofPausing in the Passing Places.This event was postponed.
As we’ve all heard, small businesses, including those in the book business, have suffered because of lower sales, closures, layoffs. One way to support local independent bookstores is to purchase books through the nation-wide, excellent and efficient online Bookshop program, Books are shipped directly from printer/warehouses, and the profits from these online sales are shared among all participating, local independent bookstores. Cladach titles that are available through IndieBound are also searchable and orderable through Bookshop. For instance, you can find my new book, Glimpsing Glory, at Bookshop HERE.
We all feel the isolation. “Staying Home” and social distancing can bring out creativity and is surely teaching us some important and hopefully lasting lessons if we will listen in the solitude to what our very-present God is whispering to us. May it be so. May healing and hope spread through our world, and may we come together again soon!
Some heartwarming stories are coming out of this difficult season, as people choose to show generosity and a giving attitude. Donna Marie Merritt (author of forthcoming BIBLE POEMS, who lives, writes, and works as a librarian in Connecticut) shared this happy, heartwarming report: “Last night I was feeling helpless, looking at a box of children’s books [that she authored] sitting idle because there are no book events right now. Then … I posted on a local FB page that any child in need of a book right now could get a signed copy from me free. Within hours, the entire box was signed and waiting in bags on my porch for pick-up. I had unemployed parents reach out, parents with bored children, parents who can’t bring their kids to the library during this crisis. It was the best ‘book event’ of my career. And some have begun sending photos.” [Photos posted below with permission].
Poetry for Praise, Worship, Devotion, Opening our Hearts to God
In our experience of God’s presence, poetry can help us focus and engage our senses and entire being. Poetry can help us process life and emotions—and see ourselves—in new ways, and thus be open to hearing God say fresh, new things to us. Scripture does this also, of course. And much of the Bible was written as poetry. I have long found soul nourishment and renewed perspective in the Psalms. And how can a person read Song of Solomon and not believe God woos and reaches us through the five senses he has given us? Isaiah, the prophet, wrote often in poetry. Sometimes poetic expression reaches straight to the heart more effectively than prose.
I believe God still speaks through poets today. Sometimes with a prophetic voice. Sometimes imparting wisdom. Sometimes bringing clarity. Sometimes lifting the soul to hope and love.
Even if you think you aren’t “into” poetry, you probably are more than you realize. Songs lyrics are a type of poetry. Along with the music, songs can pierce or soothe our hearts as well as our minds.
I encourage you to include poetry in your devotional reading, meditative prayer, quiet times, and soul care. Here are some poetry collections in which readers are finding poems that help them focus on God’s presence and love:
“Luminous, Christian spiritual walk poetry that blends the daily journey with God and the beauty and glory of God’s created world.So many of the poems provided moments of prayer for me.” ~Jimmie Kepler, reader and reviewer
“I read a couple of your poems each morning.” ~Alice Scott-Ferguson, poet, author, reader
. . .
“In our own seasons of suffering, words to explain the pain, to cry out to God, or to get a grip on our faith…”
–Elaine Wright Colvin, WIN
“A journey of worship and creativity around pain.”
–Katherine Sanford, reviewer on Amazon
. . .
“Read the poems along with your current Bible study or dip in and savor one or a few each day when you pray or think or need the boost of God’s love and purpose and truth.”
–Janet Clare F., online reviewer
. . .
“This book is a steady and wise companion for those who read the Bible with real devotion and honest questions.” –Connie Wanek, poet
. . .
“[These] poems individually and collectively pour out love for who God is.”
–Glynn Young, blogger/reviewer
“I am reading them along with my daily Scripture and other devotional readings.”
–Bev Coons, reader
. . .
“To read this book is to … open one’s own heart in unexpected ways.”
“Which do you like best? The mountains or the ocean?” My sister and I would ask each other.
I could never decide. In California for much of my life, I didn’t have to choose. We had both within close distance. I could look up and see the steadfastness of the Sierras or the Coastal Range with their redwoods, pines, deer, bears, raccoons, waterfalls and trout streams that fed the valleys. I could often feel the ocean breezes and smell the salt air from tides so full of power yet knowing their limits, from waves that lapped like earth’s heartbeat.
The metaphors we claim as our own come to us from our surroundings like a fawn stepping out of the forest or beach glass glistening in the sand.
“Which season do you like best?” was another question my sister and I would discuss. Winter offered Christmas. Summer offered school-less, barefoot days, swimming and camping. Spring meant orchards in bloom, Easter, newness.
When I returned with my husband in midlife to my native state of Colorado, I found that daily life was even more determined by the seasons here, especially winter and summer. I found that Spring near the Rockies is a matter of winter and summer fighting it out until summer wins a precarious victory.
But fall remains my favorite season, a time of the year that most inspires me to write poems. As I prepare Remembering Softly: A Life In Poems, I find myself in the Autumn of my life. Christmas doesn’t bring quite the same delight and anticipation except as our grown children and our six grandchildren share the celebrations with my husband and me. Summer I love in this high country, where wildflowers bloom from spring to early fall, the scent of summer rains on prairie grasses imparts indescribable sweetness, and sunsets paint glorious colors across the wide sky.
But fall … During this season of life colors have muted a little, most storms have settled, and anticipation of change keeps one mindful that each era of life comes—and then passes. We must gather the harvest, the fruit, the beauty—as I do from my garden—and preserve it, distill it, package it to sustain us in the winter and to share with others.
When we lived near the Pacific Coast of Northern California, we enjoyed hunting for agates on the beach any time of year. Sometimes as a wave receded, we’d see the semi-precious stones tumbling in the gravelly sand. This process had polished them to translucence, often revealing mossy patterns inside, each unique and formed by the accumulated years. Other types of agates are found in the mountains and on the plains. Each of these gems uniquely encapsulates the effects of pressures and changes in the formation of our earth home. Yet, looking deep within each agate elicits a certainty that these natural processes were guided by a beautiful, loving, almighty Creator.
I think poems are like agates.
This week I had a conversation with my sister, who has also written verse. “Where does a poem come from?” we wondered aloud. Sometimes it seems to rise up from some secret place deep within. Other times a poem—or the inspiration for one—seems to come from without. Our grandfather used to say with a twinkle in his eye that he wrote poems when the “muse sat on his shoulder.” To me it seems as if help comes surely, perhaps from a literary angel. In his poem, “The Country of Déjà Vu,” Wendell Berry asserts that his poems “came through the air, I wrote them down, and sent them on” like migrating birds stopping at his feeder. Perhaps that is as good an explanation as any.
I still marvel at an experience I had in my young adult years. At home with two toddlers, my husband busy with his career, I was emotionally bound up by griefs and losses, especially the death of my mother. I hadn’t written a poem for a long time. One evening I went by myself to a poetry reading at a religious retreat center near our home. I knew no one there. The woman poet read with warmth from verses full of life and light and love. I didn’t go expecting this to happen; but, somehow, soaking in the spoken rhyme, rhythm, and sense, awakened the gift in me. For months after that evening, poems began freely coming to mind. The opening of this fountain provided one part of the healing the Lord began working in and through me, which continues today.
Admittedly, I am not a disciplined poet. I can compose meter and rhyme on demand; but mostly I wait for that elusive and mysterious inspiration. The important thing is to capture on paper the phrases, images, and insights as they come; to sit with them, savor them, polish them like agates; and if they pass the test of holding together and ringing true, to share them.
I won’t limit each poem’s meaning by trying to explain the emotions and experiences that, for me, are encapsulated in each one. As I send them out, they are free to take on new meanings as each reader looks into them. Perhaps for you a poem will speak to a quandary, a sorrow, or a joy you are experiencing at this season of your life. That is the beauty of sharing a gift of poetry.
Still fresh in my mind and heart, this experience happened over a year ago. Looking at the night sky brings it back to me. Hearing music like I heard this week does, too: a glorious bell choir playing “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Or a symphony … and the Nativity story, with bright stars and angels appearing, giving glory to God.
Here’s what happened. In early October, Larry and I went camping in the Rockies. I wanted to see the stars. But so many campfires and lanterns and flashlights obscured the view. Then in the night, when I had to get up and hike to a campground restroom, all was quiet, all human activity was still, all was dark … except for the sky blazing with stars. And that’s when this mystical moment came: I “heard” the stars sing! Here’s the poem I wrote about this experience:
• • • • • • • • • •
I HEAR THE STARS SING
Sleeping in a tent, we must take a walk to the ‘comfort station’ sometime in the night. At 1:30 a.m. we pull out of sleeping bags, put on our shoes, snap the dog’s leash tight.
Campfires and lanterns now out, we need no flashlight to see in the ethereal glow bathing path, tents, trailers and trees, boulders, peaks, and meadows below.
Fear of bears is forgotten as, looking up, I acquiesce to the serendipitous sight— stars sprinkling the sky, a sparkling array only dreamed of on lit suburban nights.
Like music engraved across the sky, notes—not in even scores or measures, but in splashes of compositions our eyes and ears aren’t attuned to hear or decipher.
Not with physical ears do I hear music of stars singing out from the night pavilion, graced by the moon, answered by bugling elk, crooning owls and sibilant whispering wind.
Celestial strains fill my soul with consolation, comfort, and swells of settled certainty one would expect of constellations shining in place since God sang the Heavens into being.
Surely nature sings back to God day and night, I think, as we settle back in our places— born under stars, resting under starlight and listening still to star-song cadences.
It’s Maundy Thursday of Holy Week. Palm Sunday seems a long time ago. Children waved palm branches at church. It felt good to rejoice in the triumphal entry of the One who would surely be King and bring vindication and victory.
But when the the palm branches turn brown and the “red-carpet” of cloaks is put away, unresolved conflicts remain. Evil presses in, not as easy to identify as we thought. Sin wins the day, both personally and corporately. Friends transform into enemies. Favorite doctrines and laws lose their luster. Disappointment, cynicism, and fear blind the eyes.
If today we didn’t know what Holy Week would bring, we would be filled with longings and regrets, perhaps we’d even join the mob mentality of the Jews as Passover approached. Or perhaps we’d find ourselves cowering and cowardly as were the disciples.
At these times, it’s hard to see the Light, feel the Hope, hold onto Courage. Some of us feel overcome by a sense of failure, helpless yearnings, and hopeless waiting.
In the confusion surrounding the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, perhaps Jesus’ followers turned to words of the Psalmist David:
“How long, O Lord? … How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, O Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death…” (Psalm 13).
Even today, David’s poetic psalms speak to our emotions.
God still gives us poets who have the ability to express our heart longings. One such poet is James Troy Turner. Like Jesus’ followers who were not highly educated, who had few of this worlds goods, but who felt the burden of sin and oppression and wanted to believe that a Deliverer would set them free—so James Troy Turner expresses the neediness and longing of Holy Week with these verses: