Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Harvest Is In

December 25, 2015 

Dear Family and Friends, 

Can you believe it’s close to six years since Francis died? (on January 3, 2010)

What I intuited and expressed in the “Postscript” of my first book, SING TO ME AND I WILL HEAR YOU – The Poems, published in the spring of 2012, has turned out to be prophetic. I admitted there that it was the first time I was publicly using the expression “largely monastic” to characterize my lifestyle.
By now, I can confirm that this lifestyle does suit me, and on different fronts too.

Since monasticism is characterized by “work and recreation,” as well as by “prayer and study,” I am not deprived. Certain activities are staple diet for me, such as regularly going to Portland Symphony, attending plays, and participating in a wide variety of other activities, like demonstrations for peace and justice. (My days of organizing these, however, are past.) But, simultaneously with cultivating friendships which I cherish, I need and thrive on silence, and living at a slower pace. (I think my background of being an only child and of having spent15 ½ years in the convent underpins all this.) Even my long, daily yoga practice (which keeps me pain free) and being one of the leaders (but no longer the organizer of monthly gatherings for) the Dances of Universal Peace – accords with this “largely monastic” picture.

My lifestyle also goes hand in glove with the considerable work of maintaining the permaculture-demonstration site garden and orchard which Francis and I created around this little bungalow we bought in 1972. I couldn’t live in a more mutually supportive neighborhood, I believe, than this modest one, bounded by two dead end streets. We look out for one another, and I, in particular, experience how my neighbors watch out for me. For example, they help me with shoveling, and one of those neighbors also mows the lawn path around my house. On my part, it’s satisfying to be able to reciprocate with vegetables and fruits from these gardens, e.g. strawberries, blueberries, plums, and – did you know there are edible dogwood tree berries? (Cornus Mas): They’re delicious! And, listen to this: A person I hired to wash my windows this fall insisted that all he wanted as payment would be concord grapes next summer.

In the same Postscript to my first book, I went on to say that my own poems, “given me to work with,” would guide me. I compared them to “custom-made maps” and to “bells ringing out my truth.” Well, having become aware of it, multiple times since then – I can affirm that that prediction also was prophetic. My poems actually do, still, apply to my life as it evolves – for example, these lines from a poem (PAIN’S SHARP EDGE) in my first book: “Heart’s remembering sharpens / sense to touch / new you, now, any when.”

Here’s one example of my heart’s naturally “remembering”:  Every now and then I go onto my website where the is “parked,” to see what was going on, on the same day, . . . and now, it’s six years ago. When I did that last week, I was so moved by Francis’ immediate response to Anne Underwood’s comment then, I sent her an email entitled: “Thank you six years later.”

Here’s my note to her: “Anne, you made such a significant remark in response to my letter, “A Turn in the Road,” six years ago – look here at what it elicited from Francis: To your saying – "Everything happens as you are ready for it," (as I expressed it then) – “He shot right back: ‘I'm ready!’"
And I signed off my email to Anne: “At peace,
 / Elaine,/ and Francis too”

At this point, it’s difficult to convey the depth of my gratitude and joy that the three books I felt compelled to write after Francis’ death, have been completed. But this recent little poem tries to do that. It came as they all do – because a certain feeling or train of thought so moves me, it begs for expression:


Why am I crying
“Joy and thanksgiving!”?

It’s my lot
to leave our legacy of love –
(Francis’s and mine)
in poems and prose:
three books in five years,
since he died. 
Joy and thanksgiving!

It was my publisher, David Gawlik’s idea to have his graphic designer create a 4x6 postcard depicting the covers of my three books – a trilogy, really.  He ordered 1,000 cards, so I’ve been liberally giving them to whoever is interested. It’s attached in this email, but also on my website, here: What motivates me to hand them out is joy from the fact that “It’s my lot to leave our legacy of love . . .” But my eagerness also comes from wanting to share with whomever it might help – a certain unexpected development to which Providence or Synchronicity has given a boost.

This is what happened: First, my former doctor, Dr. Daniel C. Bryant, now retired, and a publisher poet and writer too, wrote me a long letter in response to my second book, SING TO ME AND I WILL HEAR YOU – A Love Story. He ended with this: “Finally, that last section when Francis is dying, and your conversations are recorded, is not only moving, but invaluable. Nowhere else, in any of the “death and dying” books and conferences, have I seen such documentation of the final stages, the final farewells, of a long, close relationship. That last section should be required reading for medical students and chaplains, if not for everybody.”
            Then, in July (just when SING . . . A Love Story was published) I made friends with new neighbors, just moved from Vermont – Rabbi Joshua Chasan and his wife Cathy. So of course, Joshua and I swapped books.
            When Joshua heard about Dr. Bryant’s comment, he immediately offered to connect me with two doctors who do exactly what Dr. Bryant was talking about – bring books to the attention of medical students.
            After email correspondences, I mailed a package of all three books to each of them, since they both work at the University of Vermont, College of Medicine. So, what Dr. Bryant proposed, has already started happening!

So that’s why I carry those 4x6 cards with me. If, prompted by my web address on the card, those to whom I give them go to my website, they will learn about that development, in addition to seeing people’s responses to all three books, including Dr. Bryant’s. And they might find material that could be of help to them; for example, an annotated bibliography of books that helped me after Francis died. I’ve also been told by several people who grieve the loss of loved ones, that my writing helps them.

Tonight I was remembering what Francis said to me, unexpectedly, six years ago, tonight –  toward the end of our first of five “Last Supper” conversations: “Your presence was deeply drawn into my soul, and so, I am very happy.” I knew enough at the time, hearing this, what an extraordinary conversation that was – and how those words of his expressed for me the fulfillment of our marriage, the preciousness of which one could not dare expect in a marriage. It was such a “zenith” moment in my life, that later, it drew a poem from me: NADIR AND ZENITH.

Last Christmas I printed and tucked a copy of that poem in some of my Christmas cards. By then, it had not yet been published. But this year, it can be found on page 61 of my third book, SING TO ME AND I WILL HEAR YOU – New Poems. (As you may remember, since Francis’ doctor, Dr. John Devlin, brought us his recorder to use, the last chapter of SING . . . Love Story entitled “Last Suppers” is a literal transcription of our recorded conversations . . . so even in just reading that chapter – it sounds like Francis! I told my editor and publisher, that even while proofreading this chapter in preparation for publication, I felt I was walking on holy ground. And for me, that impression still holds. So, no wonder Dr. Bryant said that that last chapter should be required reading for medical students and chaplains.
There’s so much more to say, for example, about: how my 80’s birthday party brought in over $2,000 for African refugees in my parish (Thank you!);
how my having been (not the “victim,” but) the object of identity theft has overburdened me (We’re just on alert now, and I’ve learned so much about this kind of thing!); how adopting a Siamese mix cat has been time consuming but so rewarding. I’ve enjoyed taking advice from the excellent book Thinking Like a Cat. Eight pound, 16 months old Bella is, as Lynn said, one of the most beautiful cats she’s ever seen. Indeed, she delights me with her beauty, playfulness, and sweet, loving ways – even when, as the predator she also is, she runs at high speed from one side of the house to the other to hop up onto the bow window sill (one of several perches I’ve set up for her in the house) so she can spot prey. When Bella bit me only a day after she arrived, I didn’t blame her, because I soon learned that the fault was mine for having let her play with my hands.

That bite did, however, inaugurate other trips to Mercy Hospital’s Express Care. After a tetanus shot for that, I had to return in ensuing weeks for two other reasons: a cut lip, and then an infected finger! (See why I’ve been delayed in writing this letter?)

The other big news in my life is this: Lynn accepted a position at Rutgers University where Lee has been teaching for years. This means that Lee no longer has to commute from New Jersey to Portland every weekend! Of course I miss them, but we’re in touch, the way a grandmother is kept in touch. And since they did not sell their home in Portland, they return regularly to keep connections with friends. So, as Rowan’s godmother, my relationship with “my little family” is strong as ever. The timing of the move is also good, since Rowan was due to move up to Middle School anyway. In hearing that she has made friends, and has also made an excellent adjustment to her new school there (where she gets top grades, as ever) I’m so proud of her! Rowan recently wrote a poem, Reverence From Earth to Soul that so moved me, I emailed it to friends of mine –  two gifted, beautiful Penobscot Indian women leaders: Sherri Mitchell, an attorney, and Maria Girouard, a historian. (Do look them up online.)

Last night, I had the great privilege again, at our Christmas Eve liturgy, to chant the ancient Christmas proclamation from the Roman Martyrology. It’s something that’s done mostly in monasteries. In 2013, the idea of doing it in our parish came to me spontaneously during a conversation with a friend, when I was recalling my love of the Advent “O Antiphons,” as we sang them during convent days. If you use this link  you can hear a Benedictine monk chanting it. . . .

I guess the nun part of me is still strong. It’s fitting, then, to close with two poems (both in my third book) since they express where I’m at right now.

THE NUN, THE WIFE, AND THE WIDOW                    

The nun knew,
on the eve of her departure,
the reason she would leave
the convent.

She quoted the bride
of the Songs of Songs
in her unconventional
Christmas card –
in alluding to him,
the priest:
“I found him whom my soul loves,
and I will never
let him go.”

Words declared as wife and widow, too.
                              * Song of Songs 3:4


“I’ve never had a love
like that!” she cries,
looking at the cover of
my second book –
that look –
between my love and me.

We embrace,
my former student and I.
She loved him too;
had heard he was deceased.

But she weeps for herself
(I can tell)
more than out of sympathy for me –
that she, beautiful and single still –
has not yet found her love.

To hearten her:
“You’re young, it’s not too late!”  
She smiles through her tears.

Hearing hers and other women’s tales,
I know the price I pay
– widow aching for his arms –
weighs nothing like the worth of
such a love I’ve known.

A Blessed rest of the Christmas season to each and all of you – culminating in the illuminating Epiphany,
and good health, peace, joy and love in 2016 and beyond,

My love and gratitude,

December 25, 2015

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

With Diminishment - Fulfillment

 Dear Family and Friends,  

There are four chapters in my third book, SING TO ME AND I WILL HEAR YOU New Poems – recently arrived! Each chapter is taken from a line in one of my own poems. In one of those,  entitled “BIRTHDAYS,” I refer to my “new imperative” (second chapter heading):

“. . . we could not know 
what lay ahead –
how our birthdays that year
would usher in
a new and
different kind of life 
when through my loss
I found you again –
but near –
enabling me
in my new imperative
to tell our story,
to share our love.”

During the five and a half years since Francis’ death, and in particular, when poems started to come, and then, after the publication of each of the first and next two books (our love story, and this latest, second book of poems) – I’ve ended one of my daily prayers, “Come darling Francis, fill me with your spirit. . . ” by asking him: “Give me courage and the will to live – and help me write our books.”

And he has! I had a dream around the time when I sent my publisher the final manuscript of SING . . . New Poems which made it clear that he has. In the dream, the way that Francis firmly took me by the shoulders, and smiling, thanked me for having completed the books, was so palpable, it felt almost like what I related in the poem, “VISITATION,” in the first poem book.

So I fully expected I would be moving on to the fourth book, now. I had even already announced its title: “THIS NEW LIFE A Widow’s Journal”. In fact, since I had already begun writing a third book that initially included both the poems and the widow’s journal –  what I had indicated in recent letters (that that fourth book was already “in progress”) – was correct. Correct, then.
But last Sunday, I went into my website’s home page, and I deleted this sentence:  A fourth book is in progress: "THIS NEW LIFE Selections from a Widow's Journal".

What happened?  Did I – or why did I – lose, seemingly suddenly – the “imperative” to write the fourth book?

Two former students of mine, now widowed, told me last year that my writing helps them. After I offered to mail them copies of this third one, one of them emailed, inquiring: “How do you feel now that the new book has been published?” I responded:  “Oh my, what a big question, Mary!”    

But I told her truthfully that I felt teary, and, without quoting the penultimate stanza of the poem “WHAT WOULD YOU DO?”, I referred her to page 80 and added: “This poem mentions what I’m driving at. In spite of the ‘let that go . . .’ in the last line, it’s still a thought that returns. I’m grateful to have a spiritual adviser with whom to talk this over. It’s good you have your girls to keep you going.” (I was grateful to hear in Mary’s response, that my admission of feeling teary helped her all the more.)
These are the last two stanzas of “WHAT WOULD YOU DO?”:

“Ever since your death,  
I’ve taken relief in the thought:
I’ll write my books, then die.

But now I know it’s time
to let that go . . .”

The reaction I confided to Mary was strong enough to initiate deep reflection, and some soul searching. In the end, I took it as a sign I needed to do something different from what I had expected was my next step.

I’m aware that several factors compounded in June to make me feel especially vulnerable. But my decision – specifically, to let go of the fourth book, and also, to slow down  – was only reinforced by each of the following:

1) I came down with unexpected, acute pain in the left hip. X-RAYS confirmed there’s significant cartilage degeneration in both hip joints. And this was complicated by reactive tendonitis of hip flexor muscles in the left hip. (I’m much better now, and have returned the borrowed canes I used for a few weeks, thanks to yoga which now keeps both hips in good working order.)
As a result of this episode, however, though I will still lead some Dances of Universal Peace (DUP), I decided to hand over to the other two leaders of our “circle” in Portland, the organizing role I necessarily took on since I started it, in 1997.

2) For someone like me who has had to do daily yoga to keep the right hip pain free (as a result of which my health and energy are very good) the shock of having had to use a cane, and of being unable to plant my garden without help, raised a scary question: Will I be able to “age in place”? Some of my contemporaries have moved, or will be moving, to be near their children. Will I be able to live here till I die? Will I be able to keep up with all the work there is to do in maintaining the permaculture? (Then I remembered a neighbor I had hired to help free me to be totally available to Francis at the end. And I talked with her about this, if I need help, in the future.)

3) Turning 50 years old was a big thing for me thirty years ago, but, psychologically, turning 80 is huge. After over a year of being in awe of this fact (One of my new poems is entitled “I’M GLAD I’M OLD just thirteen months / from my eightieth year. . . ”) it’s gratifying to realize that I’m actually, honestly, “glad,” about it.
This is what I wrote to a friend only last night, about the “switch” in our DUP circle: “Interesting how much real joy there is in doing that – making way for the next generation. You know, I haven’t been able to completely shake off what I wrote in more than one of my poems, such as this one –  “I’M GLAD I’M OLD” . . .  or “EN ROUTE” which refer to my willingness to be reunited with Francis in whatever mysterious way that will happen someday. . . . Ah! The poem “WHEN MY TIME COMES” refers to it specifically. Here’s that poem . . .”

So, the “teary” reaction which led me to a different path, creating a juncture or crossroad, has brought me new resolution, and even deeper joy.

I found myself reasoning like this in favor of putting aside the second book and slowing down:

If the third book, SING . . . New Poems traces my journey through widowhood, and goes even deeper into that experience than the first one could (and it does) – why comb through past journals to assemble selections for a fourth book entitled “THIS NEW LIFE A Widow’s Journal”? Especially since it would, in essence, convey in prose, much of the same thing? So my widowed former students need not be disappointed (as one expressed last year) at the postponement of “widow’s journal.”

Besides, if I did write a fourth book, by publication date, I might be 81 or 82 – and so less spry to do the modest book tour I’ve envisioned doing (because I love doing book readings. . . . and I’m good at it too. What I especially like is how it engages people to reflect about their own lives. My last book reading lasted two hours, because of the questions after my presentation.)

Moreover, if I did not write a fourth book – wouldn’t I be more thoroughly living “This New Life” since I’d use that time to be more engaged with my local community? I could be doing some of the things Francis and I did together – e.g. by being more available on the peace and justice front? Or by formally teaching English to Africans, rather than merely informally, after mass? (Francis used to sit in on those classes, and enjoyed interacting with our African friends.)

Writing requires a certain amount of solitude which I actually like, even thrive on. This necessity has been a genuine “excuse” why I have had to isolate myself just a little. But I believe it would be good for me to be more engaged in our Portland community, without sacrificing the solitude I still want and need.

Finally, since I like writing so much, and poetry in particular, there’s no reason why I couldn’t keep myself open to new poems’ coming, even if the likelihood of my publishing another book of poems is far-fetched. When/if more poems come, there’s the Elaine’s Blog on my website where I could “park” them.

I’ve been trying to think of what to call this letter. “With Diminishment – Fulfillment” is an okay title, but “only okay” because the “diminishment” part of it sounds pretentious. In particular, because the “diminishment” is not as dire as it first felt.

But the “fulfillment” is real because, with the arrival of the third book, the three form a trilogy now. And this trilogy is entitled by my late husband’s own words – Francis’ request of me when he would die: “Sing to me and I will hear you.”
My amazement over this remarkable request of his (which inspired two poems in the first book – “WHOEVER HEARD?” and “DUET”) continues, even now, five and a half years since Francis’ death. This was demonstrated some weeks ago when a friend introduced me to another of her friends. When I explained this simple fact to her, both of us were caught in the emotion of this exceptional and loving request Francis made of me. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it. Nor would I want to!

Gratitude and Love to all,

PS: SING TO ME AND I WILL HEAR YOU – New Poems is available through Amazon and at local bookstores and selected libraries in the greater Portland area (including Biddeford ME). Through my website you can also order a book from my local bookstore in Portland ME – Longfellow Books which has multiple copies.  

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Different Kind of Letter

 Dear Family and Friends,

At first I thought this might seem to you like a different kind of letter from the ones I’ve written since September, 2009, when Francis and I received news of the cancer that would take his life. My letters since then have included news of the writing I’ve been doing since his death. (The third book, by the way – SING TO ME AND I WILL HEAR YOU – New Poems should be available in May. And now I’m engaged working on the fourth book – “THIS NEW LIFE – A Widow’s Journal.”)

In reality, however, this is not a very different kind of letter. And I think you’ll see why, if its length does not deter you. ;o) But I’ll tell you right now. In a nutshell, it’s this: What I write about below are happenings Francis and I experienced together. In their very telling, then, he comes among us.  

Here’s why I wrote my letter:

Because Francis and I made a three week tour of Vietnam in 2006, when I read the following on – I knew I had to respond:

“This year marks the 50th anniversary of the landing of U.S. ground troops in Da Nang, Vietnam.  Many consider this to be the beginning of the American War in Vietnam. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the war the Pentagon is undertaking a ten-year, $65-million campaign to rewrite and whitewash the history of the war in Southeast Asia.
In response, Veterans for Peace has announced the Vietnam War Full Disclosure project to offer a more truthful history of the war.  As part of the project, Veterans for Peace is asking all who were affected, directly or indirectly, by the war to write letters addressed to “The Wall” (the Vietnam Veterans Memorial) describing their experiences and sharing their grief over its devastating consequences. The project welcomes letters from both soldiers and civilians.”
Shortly after Francis’ and my return, I had given a one hour slide show presentation about our tour to the Audubon Society’s Travel Club. So I knew I had material ready at hand in all the notes and a few articles I had written.  

When I opened those files, my eyes brimmed with tears.

My letter is posted on the website that includes much information, and –