burning the old year

Sorrow looks back, Worry looks around, Faith looks up

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

How will you spend the next few days?  Looking back, looking around.  Or . . . looking up?  “So much of any year is flammable,” as the poet below most beautifully expresses.  And if I looked around at my own work spaces, at all the baskets I’ve crammed with notes and slips of paper saved, photographs sent to me by someone wanting me to remember a moment we shared, in all of that what I suppose I’m keeping most is not the things themselves, but love and hope and the promise of good things to come.


Burning the Old Year

By Naomi Shihab Nye

Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.


So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.


Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.


Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.

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strike a pose

Look around everywhere you turn it’s heartache.  It’s everywhere that you go.

When you’re a reader it’s not just books that fascinate you.  You read everything, and I mean everything.  The Chinese ladies outside the vegetable markets in San Francisco who push each other out of the way to board the bus, holding those pink plastic bags full of offerings they’ll leave on their front steps with a stick of incense.  The way your daughters lit the candles during Mass, one struggling to reach each wick and the other looking down at her when it was all through as she blew out the taper.  Everything is a story to the reader.

I recently spent the evening with a friend who told me she never reads much into anything, that she was blessed with a bad memory and just let’s it all go.  I wish I was like that!  If you’re an artistic contemplative over-thinking-type reader like me, you just can’t do that.  No, you’ve got to enter into every story, get behind the characters, and feel what they feel, wonder at what they’re doing, go where they go.  It’s exhausting.  And while it’s easy to put down a novel whose characters you don’t like or whose plot repels you for whatever reason, we don’t have this luxury with life.  That’s a story we simply can’t put down.  And I don’t know about you but it’s been a pretty dismal read lately.  A barrage of bad news in the world, in my community and family, in my own heart.  I tell myself all things are passing, but underneath it all it just sounds like Dorothy clicking her heels. [Read more…]

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holding hands


Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ve been traveling.  By car.  Many miles of open road and wide sky.  And of all the images flooding my mind as I try to conjure up stories to tell, I keep coming back to this man I met on a passenger train between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.  Not that kind of man, silly.  I know it’s summer, but perhaps you’ve been reading too many romance novels — or not enough.  This particular man could have been my father and he was traveling with a fidgety middle-aged man bearing the distinct characteristics of Down’s Syndrome.  I had taken an open seat a few rows ahead of them and when I initially glanced down the center aisle of the train I couldn’t help noticing the Down’s man tossing his head back and breaking open in laughter with the man beside him and another man in a well-worn cowboy hat who sat facing him across from a table.  Sometimes a story presents itself in unexpected ways.

My traveling companions had selected the four seats opposite this motley posse, and with a sigh of relief my brother and I took our seats a few rows away from our children.  As luck would have it, just as my little nephew began to make mischief the two aisle seats across from them became available and my brother was suddenly sitting next to the Down’s man.  I’d like to say I remained where I was because I fancy myself a practical person who makes moves only when absolutely necessary, but we all know that’s not true.  The truth is I didn’t want to find myself in such intimate space, on a train, facing a middle-aged man with Down’s Syndrome with only a flimsy formica tray table between us.  What an awkward situation to find myself in.  The insincere effort to not look away.  The patronizing conversation I’d force upon all of us.  Then the silence sure to follow.  Then the looking away.  I’ll just stay put and make it easy on all of us thank you.

My brother motioned me over soon enough, though, and I quickly surmised it would be more awkward to remain rooted where I was than to take that empty seat with my family.  And so it was that I found myself on a train sitting next to this man wrinkled by time and the desert sun no dusty cowboy hat could shade him from and across from his giggly companion.

I have been told that God’s grace takes us by surprise when we’re least expecting it, but when you listen to people talk about their encounters with the divine, their stories always seem to involve emergency vehicles, hospital rooms or sensations of light.  They’re swept up by a swoosh of wind, a clash of thunder, or a dramatic hush after hours of moaning misery.  They feel God’s presence in a community’s outpouring of support in times of tragedy — in candles, casseroles, a comforting hug through tears.  If you’re waiting for those big moments, though, I think you’re missing so much.

I took my seat and the man next to me gradually began a conversation typical while traveling.  Most people have some connection to where I’m from, and he was no different.  We talked about my recent sprint through the Mojave Desert, where he had lived once when his son — the Down’s man sitting across from me — was born at a Kaiser Hospital.  They were so advanced back then, that Kaiser there in California.  Look at him . . . most doctors told us he would never live this long.  Tell them how old you are.  The Down’s man turned to look at us quickly and said he was 45, the same age as my adopted brother and me, each of us born the same year, 1969, in different parts of California.  While we agreed there wasn’t much else out there in the Mojave but tumbling weeds, abandoned single-wide trailers and State prisons, his son returned his gaze toward the window and resumed his fidgeted smiling in his seat.  But at one moment during his conversation with me, the man took his son’s pale hand in his and held it gently, patting him softly with his other hand.  Their fingers seemed worn smooth with familiarity and they playfully intertwined as the man continued in his quiet way to tell me about visiting his brother one time in the prison I had passed just outside Bakersfield.  It was a seamless gesture of affection, but I noticed it, and I can’t seem to get the image out of my mind.  The way his son rested peacefully with his touch.  The love between this elderly father and his adult son traveling together on a train to spend the day in Santa Fe.


Miss Morstan and I stood together, and her hand was in mine. A wondrous subtle thing is love, for here were we two, who had never seen each other until that day, between whom no word or even look of affection had ever passed, and yet now in an hour of trouble our hands instinctively sought for each other. I have marveled at it since, but at the time it seemed the most natural thing that I would go out to her so, and, as she has often told me, there was in her also the instinct to turn to me for comfort and protection. So we stood hand in hand like two children, and there was peace in our hearts for all the dark things that surrounded us.

~ Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Stories

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