On friendship, flickers, and remembering

Earlier this spring I was chatting with my friend, Sue. She filled me in on the progression of her illness, recent doctors visits, etc, but then got down to what she really wanted to talk about– a bird she’d seen lately hopping about on her grass.

“Oh I’ve been having such fun watching it!, she enthused. “It isn’t a robin though it’s about the same size. It’s got specks on its chest, and it’s always poking around in the grass out my back window. Do you know what it is?”

“Could it be a northern flicker?” I asked. “Does it have a sort of heart-shaped patch of red on its head and a black bib?”

“Yes!” she exclaimed. “It does!”

She looked it up in her bird book and was delighted to confirm that her mystery bird was indeed a northern flicker. She was also tickled that I’d been able to identify it based on her clues.

I was pretty chuffed too, but did fess up that I’d had several flickers visiting my yard last spring and learned about them then. I also told her that flickers were one of my dad’s favorite birds. In fact, during one of our visits over the past year, he had told me that one reason he’d bought the house I grew up in was because there’d been flickers in the yard when they first visited. For a few weeks after his Celebration of Life service in April, I spotted flickers all over the place and took some comfort in that. Now I always think of my father when I see flickers.

About a week ago, I walked out to my car after visiting Sue, carrying the weight of the knowledge that I would not see her again. In the cool, grey drizzle, something moved and caught my eye. I looked. A bird was hopping about in the back yard. Could it be? I blinked, peering through my tears and the rain. Saw the telltale speckles. The red heart. Sure enough, it was a northern flicker. I couldn’t help but smile, even in the midst of my deepest sorrow. It felt like a sign, a message from Sue or maybe the universe. Either way, I again took some comfort in it.

Yesterday, we celebrated Sue’s life. If I try really hard, I can still feel the warmth of her hand in mine , see the sparkle in her blue eyes, and hear her voice and the echo of her wonderful laugh. I know some of that will fade with time, but I also know that her presence in my life is permanent. She’s left an indelible mark.

In the days to come, I’ll be keeping my eyes out for flickers, and will now remember both my father and Sue when I see them. But truly, I won’t need the flickers to remember.

RIP my friend.

For Sue

I first met Sue when she walked into my classroom almost 15 years ago. I was 40 years old and it was my first teaching job. I’d been hired two weeks before school started and though I’d student-taught 5th grade, I was going to be teaching a multi-age 1st/2nd grade classroom. Sue introduced herself as the Literacy Specialist. Little did I know then that she’d become one of my very best friends.

I believe Sue’s first words to me were something along the lines of “Here’s my advice. Don’t pretend you already know everything.” Sue can definitely be blunt, and that comment might have been off-putting to some, but it was fine with me. I already knew I was in over my head, and here was someone who just opened the door to asking her all my questions. And she always had answers or would research until she found them.

When I think of Sue, one of the first things that comes to mind is her laugh. The. Best. Ever. Full and throaty and loud. I loved hearing it echo down the hallway at school. Something between a hoot and perhaps a cackle. But so vibrant and joyous. Unfettered. It was an open invitation to appreciate the moment along with her— the foibles of humanity, the quirks, the absurdities. Ever since Sue became ill, I’ve yearned to be able to bottle up the sound of her laughter.

Sue is, as all real learners are, deeply curious. Although she’s in her late 70s, she embraces technological advances and knows her way around a computer. She dives into each new endeavor with determination and enthusiasm. And maybe a spread sheet or two. She asks questions of everyone—sometimes without always thinking it through first. She’s endlessly fascinated by people and the world around her.

My favorite Sue story is when we were crossing the border into Canada. Our book club was going to Quebec City and this was Sue’s first trip out of the country. She was thrilled. In true Sue fashion, she’d researched the heck out of everything and had created detailed charts and timetables with everything we needed to enjoy our time in Quebec City. Unbeknownst to us, she also had a few questions for the guards at the border. Questions like: “Do you wear a bullet proof vest?” or “I’ve heard that even with a bullet proof vest on, it will hurt if you get shot. Is that true?” While she indulged her curiosity, and the guard kindly answered her, we struggled to urgently yet discretely signal to her to stop. We were sure we were all going to get pulled from the van and searched at any instant. Luckily, the guard received her questions in the inquisitive spirit with which they were offered, and the memory still makes us all laugh.

Sue is also the very best listener. I suppose that goes hand in hand with her learner stance and her boundless curiosity. She asks questions and then 100% focuses on your answers. She wants to gather up all the information and truly understand. Through the years we’ve talked about everything–books, teaching, family, friends, politics, nature, and on and on.

Sue loves completely, not blindly, but with acceptance. She understands we’re all flawed. She is so open and generous with her love and affection. I can hear her saying, when I confess something or share something new, “Oh, but I think that’s wonderful!” Such a Sue thing to say. But she also calls it as she sees it and her insight is often illuminating. I always knew that I could tell Sue absolutely anything. What a gift that has been.

Sue was diagnosed with cancer in April. Along the way, she’s shown her typical inquisitiveness. She was fascinated when she learned a way to breathe better to compensate for her partially deflated lung. She kept telling me that she was going to “go with the flow of it.” It wasn’t unusual for us to talk during this time and for her to begin a sentence, “You know what I love about all this…” and then share a recent anecdote from time with her daughter during yet another doctor visit or offer up some newly gained knowledge.

Simply put, Sue’s an inspiration. She’s taught every one around her so much. At each juncture of this journey, she’s gathered information, considered her options, and openly communicated with family and friends. Her worries have been mostly for her family, not herself. She’s shown such grace.

When I was visiting with Sue a month or so ago, she commented, “I won’t be here, but I’ll be everywhere.” I’m trying to take comfort in that. Mostly I’m focusing on my gratitude for having been blessed to know and have a deep friendship with this wonderful woman. She’s been such a tremendous mentor and support to me in countless ways.

In her latest text update, Sue’s daughter, Hannah, wrote to say that Sue is moving into a hospital bed in her living room. In true Sue fashion, she wants to be part of “the ins and outs of the day” and she has made Hannah promise to “keep telling her stories even if she cannot respond.” 

Throughout the years, Sue has read every blog post I have written and often e-mails me with her reactions. She knows how much I love her and how much I value our friendship, but this is one more chance to thank her for enriching my world and tell her once again how thankful I am for the time we’ve had. 

So, this one’s for you, Sue, my dearest friend. I love you!

Grief and Gratitude

Sometimes on a day where your heart feels heavy and grief feels like too steady of a companion, the universe conspires to lift you up…

A visit to the garden in the morning yields an exuberance of blossoms. Pollinators tumble and bumble in and out of pollen-rich stamen. Peonies unfold in fragrant splendor. Sun sets a late-blooming poppy ablaze. A white crab spider lingers in a rugosa rose.

In early afternoon, an out-of-town friend calls and I pull myself out of low energy and an afternoon nap to meet her. To talk and walk. On that walk we stumble upon a garden of prayers for the Earth.

It is one woman’s intricate creation, open to the community. She is (by chance?) in her garden and explains: The prayer wheels are painted in Aboriginal style, in colors representing the Chinese elements. “I started to paint the dots,” she says, “and it wasn’t until I got underway, that I realized the dots were actually leading me.” Her garden is a place of welcome, tranquility and unity. Hope and harmony.

Later, after eating out, Kurt suggests that we take a walk, and though I yearn only to go home and cocoon, I acquiesce. And on the walk along abandoned railroad tracks out into a sort of forgotten wilderness, we see snapping turtles heaving their heavy bodies up by the tracks, churning up the earth to lay their precious eggs. Primal and sacred.

Further on, a beaver swims in lazy circles, undisturbed by our presence. It’s so quiet and so still that I can hear the beaver exhale over the water. A Baltimore oriole flashes tangerine in the leaves and a yellow warbler hops through the treetops. Far off in the distance a deer grazes.

Later, as we leave the tracks and head back toward the car, a mink appears by the side of the road. It’s not there. And then suddenly it is. It sees me and takes one step back with its catch firmly gripped in its mouth. It stops. We stand, frozen, eyes locked, for one long moment. Two creatures traveling along the same road.

Then it bounds across the pavement and disappears into the greenery.

Suddenly the day sort of spins into a wild joy or keening gratitude, kaleidoscoping all these moments.

And perhaps they are all the brighter for the sorrow that darkens their edges.

The poem from the prayer garden now seems especially apt:

Gratitude:

“I thank you God for this most amazing day… blessed is the fruit of Thy womb. Who can number the sands of the seas and the drops of rain? Green trees spiraling to the sky, earth in their roots and heaven in their branches. Creatures of the field and forest, the sea. Our brothers & sisters who share our home. The Whole Universe is blessed…is lost in this Wonderful Holy Dance.”

PF: Spring Cleaning

This month it was my turn to pick the writing challenge for the Inklings. Spring arrives a bit later up here in Maine, so my thoughts turned to the much vaunted “spring cleaning.” Anyone who knows me well, knows that cleaning is not my forte. Still, here was the challenge I posed (perhaps with procrastination in mind): “Spring is finally arriving in Maine, and though, year after year, I turn my back on spring cleaning, I thought it might be fun to write a poem about some sort of domestic task. (Writing a poem = way more fun than cleaning!) “

I also shared a link to a possible mentor poem called, aptly, “Spring Cleaning”.

Spring Cleaning
by Ellen M. Taylor

Why are there no poems of the joy
of vacuum cleaning after a long

winter? Of the pleasure of pulling
the couch back, sucking up cobwebs, dead

flies, candy cane wrappers, cookie crumbs?
The sun rises earlier now, flooding

the room with daffodil light, enough
to see long unseen clumps of dog hair,…

(click here to read the rest of the poem)

Once I’d shared the challenge, I realized that I really didn’t know what I wanted to write. All my best intentions to clean and organize scatter every weekend morning when I awake to a vibrant, changing world. How could I write about cleaning? Perhaps more to the point, how can you stay inside when there’s something to exclaim over around each corner?! The bees are buzzing! The alewives are running and the osprey are fishing! There’s a pair of wrens nesting in the tree out back! Lilacs perfume the air! Dandelions transform lawns to wishing field overnight! Spring showers bauble the garden! The warblers are warbling! There’s just so much going on! In Spring the world is on permanent exclamation point! It’s a time of year that invites, almost demands, celebration. I kept thinking of the hymn, “How Can I Keep from Singing?” Finally, I decided to use that song as a sort of parody base for my poem.

You can find different versions of the lyrics, but here’s a choral rendition of the the version I prefer which is more inclusive:

So, as you read, feel free to sing along with my poem. To be honest, I do not know how well the rhythm and the poem itself works without the hymn in mind, because I sang as I wrote this and can’t divorce the melody from the words!

Spring Cleaning

As Winter fades and Spring arrives
abrim with new creations
the virtuous are locked inside
obsessed with dirt predation

But robin’s rockin’ on the lawn
an oriole is singing
wisteria drips down the vines
while they’re inside mop-wringing

I tarry in the shower stall
where grout is grim and greening
I make one desultory swipe
then flee away from cleaning

Although the corner cobwebs grow
in silent protestation
I can not yield the duster more
without loud lamentation

The grass is green, the skies are blue
the vernal pools are teeming
What foolish person would I be,
if I just kept on cleaning?

The meadows burst with newfound life
sweet blossoms resurrected
Each day unfolds with new delights
Spring cleaning is neglected

When flowers tremble in the breeze
and birds are hover-gleaning
I will not yield to tyrant dirt
I will not keep on cleaning

I will not scour, dust and mop
and waste these hours, fleeting
Spring’s miracles will soon be gone.
There’s time enough for cleaning.

©Molly Hogan

Karen Edmisten is hosting this week’s Poetry Friday Round up at her blog. Be sure to stop by and enjoy a wonderful poem by Yeats and while you’re there, check out some other posts as well. If you want to check out what the other Inklings did with this challenge, click on the links below:

Linda Mitchell
Catherine Flynn
Heidi Mordhorst
MaryLee Hahn
Margaret Simon

Also, be sure to spend some time outside celebrating the wonders of Spring!

“Warbling”: A Photo Essay

Looking for warblers, or what I call warbling, is one of my favorite things to do early in the morning on spring weekends. According to Oxford dictionary, warbling technically means to sing with a “succession of constantly changing notes”. I, personally, prefer to think of warbling as wandering around on an early morning, neck craned to look upwards, eyes flitting about from tree to tree. I’m not alone in this pursuit, as in birding hotspots, you’ll find flocks of like-minded folk, binoculars pressed to their eyes, cameras at their side. I often think we look like our own odd species of bird. You’ll even hear whispers and fragments of our customary calls: “Oh, there’s one!” “Did you see….?” or “Darn it!”

So, if you’re not a bird of this feather, it would probably help to know that warblers are small, often colorful, active birds that migrate in the spring. I’m still relatively new to birding, and I only recently learned that most birds migrate overnight. Isn’t that the coolest thing!? I love to think of waves of warblers moving through the night skies while we’re sleeping! In the morning they’re hungry from all their exertions and need to fuel up for the next leg of their journey. As the sun warms the treetops, they glean insects from the newly emerging tree foliage. In pursuit of prey, they rarely sit still–or at least when they’re not blocked by a leaf or a branch! Spotting them, much less identifying them is a challenge!

poster illustrated by Jada Fitch

Trying to take photographs of warblers is an exercise in patience and optimism. You spend a lot of time looking up at this…

or at suspicious looking clump of leaves like these…

hoping to see a flash of movement or a splotch of color like this (though preferably when one’s camera settings aren’t off!)…

indigo bunting (messed up my camera settings…again! lol)

And then (if you’re lucky!) there are lots and lots of birds around and many “almost got it!” moments like this (unlucky timing, poor camera settings, bad lighting, etc)…

Still, there are many consolation prizes. You get to spend time here…

and here…

and here…

And sometimes you bump into some other old friends along the way…

Both feathered…

and not…

If you’re really lucky, you get a few pretty good warbler photos to show for all the effort…

and then sometimes a few that feel deeply satisfying…

palm warbler
northern parula with breakfast
yellow rumped warbler
black and white warbler

All in all, whether you get a photo or not, it’s a wonderful way to spend a spring morning.

PF: It’s been a year

They’ve Flown My Coop

A flock of renegades
they’ve taken to free-ranging
scrabbling about
scritch-scritch-scratching
peck-peck-pecking
stirring things up

At my cautious approach
they ruffle and up-size
Feathered coils of anxiety
primed to flutter and squawk
newly bold and belligerent

I retreat and from a distance
begin to count them
making sure they’re all still there
oddly invested in their survival
My flock of feral worries

©Molly Hogan

And here’s another poem, just because…well, you can laugh or you can cry, right?

These days I am wicked forgetful
Too often I’m feeling regretful
for things left undone
or never begun
I just can’t keep track of anything!

©Molly Hogan

I’m hoping you see what I did there! lol

It has been a year. I’m wishing intensely for the end of the school year, but also wishing for more time. I’m worrying about quite a few things, and excited about a few others. I’m accepting sorrow and seeking joy. It’s all a balancing act, I guess. Some days I manage it better than others. Always I find comfort and solace in nature.

This week’s Poetry Friday Roundup is hosted by Carmela Martino at Teaching Authors.

A Word or Two of Gratitude

This month Linda Mitchell posed our Inkling challenge: “Honor someone’s April Poetry project in some way with a poem in the spirit of their project, a response poem or some way that suits you.” I loved the idea, but was a bit worried because I hadn’t followed along consistently with many, or really any, of the National Poetry Month (NPM) projects. I was peripherally aware of what people were doing, and dipped in now and again, but that was about it. Time just got away from me, and focus was in short supply as well.

As I pondered my options (and was all too aware of time ticking away), I realized that the big take-away for me this past month was admiration and gratitude for everyone who participated. I was simply wowed by the commitment and passion of each poet, impressed by their creative projects and by their determination to recognize and participate in NPM. Although I didn’t participate at all, I benefitted greatly from those who did and shared their work and their processes so generously. In the end, I decided that’s what I wanted to honor–the creative efforts and outcomes of all who participated in NPM.

A Word or Two of Gratitude

They dive 
into the rush and gush
of creative flow
not knowing, just going
and growing
sowing poetry seeds
on a month-long quest
not to be the best
but to be blessed by words
along a self-chosen quest
to dive deep and reap
to snatch at a wisp
of whispered word
twist it, chisel it
into a “something” that prickles
pierces upward
like a tender leaf 

Reaching through soil
breaching boundaries 
reward for the toil
from coiled seed
into bud and bloom
which soon falls
to mulch, to mix 
into rich compost
a host for the next endeavor
whatever
that might be

Never minding the distractions
infractions 
odd daily impactions
they peel back layers
a wordy striptease
to find the sublime
rewind time
strike at each part
let words fall apart
until the heart
of it all pulses 
with a steady
beat beat beat
at our world-weary feet

A gift beyond measure
a poetry treasure

©Molly Hogan

If you want to check out what the other Inklings did with this challenge, click on the links below:

Linda Mitchell
Catherine Flynn
Heidi Mordhorst
MaryLee Hahn
Margaret is spending time with family this week and won’t be participating.

This week’s Poetry Friday is hosted by Jama Rattigan at her blog, Jama’s Alphabet Soup. Be sure to stop by and see what she’s dishing up this week along with other PF participants.

PF: Invitation

The closer one lives to the land, the less one distrusts time.
Hal Borland

I’ve been feeling scattered lately. Unsettled. Thinking a lot about time, life, choices. Trying to make sense of things. So far, I haven’t made much progress. It’s like I keep trying to walk a straight line on a curving path. I continually feel a bit askew. A bit lost.

About a week ago I stumbled upon David Wagoner’s poem, “Lost“. I’ve read it again and again and again since then. It begins like this:

“Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,”

I don’t know much, but I do know that anything I do to connect with the natural world yields rich dividends for me. I was struck by the idea that even when I may feel lost, the landscape around me (literal and metaphorical) is not. Whatever surrounds me is “Here” and worth meeting and knowing. My perspective of being lost is simply that, a perspective. As such, it can be changed.

The poem ends with these lines:

“If what a tree or bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
where you are. You must let it find you.”

So, over my much anticipated spring break, I wandered a bit, here and there. To the bay. To the river. To the woods. To the marsh. Seeking to reconnect with the natural world and with myself in some way. Trying to reconfigure the pieces into a cohesive whole. Trying to open myself to knowing the “here” and to letting the world around me find me.

Invitation

Come sit a while
Don’t overlook
the simple wooden bench
on greening grass
Be open to the allure
of scudding clouds
budding tree
and bluest sky
Slough off your sorrow
Seek joy in blackbird’s call
Turn your face 
to the fledgling warmth
of spring sun
Let hope spark 
Open yourself
to a deeper knowing
Let this place
cast its spell
Come sit a while

©Molly Hogan

The Poetry Friday Roundup this week is at Jone Rush Macculloch’s blog.

Tribute: James Dennis Hogan, 11/3/40-11/25/21

My father died on Thanksgiving Day. He had just turned 81, and after 80 healthy years, he had spent the last seven months of his life battling pancreatic cancer. We’ve spent the last four months or so trying to pick up the pieces. This past weekend we paid tribute to my Dad, traveling to Ohio to celebrate his life with family and friends. When it was my turn to share, this is more or less what I said:

When I started teaching fourth grade about five or six years ago, I had to teach students how to write five paragraph essays. The curriculum guide suggested writing a model essay with the claim: “My Father is one of my most important teachers.” At the time, I kind of shrugged and thought, well, I can work with that. But year after year, as I thought about this claim and searched for reasons and evidence and wrote about it, I came to realize that my father had taught me more than I had ever imagined.

First, Dad taught me to think of others. He was unfailingly polite and could be quite a charmer. He enjoyed chatting with people. More than once when I was wandering around talking to medical personnel, trying to track down some random schedule detail or information, the person helping me, upon hearing my dad’s name, would say, “Oh, I remember your Dad! Tell him I’m thinking about him. He’s such a nice guy.” In a word (or two), he was ever affable and gracious, and everyone enjoyed interacting with him.

Dad also taught me to work hard and to get through tough times. Whether it was professionally or personally, Dad didn’t shirk. He reinvented his professional life multiple times, rising above some big challenges. He didn’t moan or groan about it, he just got done what needed to be done. Only as an adult could I begin to appreciate how challenging some of those times must have been. On a lighter note, I also distinctly remember him out mowing the lawn at our home in Pittsburgh, even though his allergies always kicked into gear. He would repeatedly stop to pull out his ubiquitous handkerchief and blow his nose. Then start mowing again. Stop. Blow. Mow. Stop. Blow. Mow. Getting the job done. Meanwhile, I was often cooking him a cake in my Easy Bake oven. Now that’s a memory that still makes me smile.

Above all, Dad taught me the power of a well-played word. He had a great vocabulary and a wonderful sense of humor. He enjoyed using his wit to come up with the perfectly timed quip to make people laugh. He was quick and often quite funny. He had such a marvelous twinkle in his eye when he delivered punch lines or slipped in the perfect jest. He loved using interesting words and finding just the precise word to say what he meant. For example, Dad often reminded me that my face was dolichocephalic. (dolly-co-cephalic) You can look that up. (Believe it or not, somehow that one came up in conversation more than one might imagine. )

Dad was also a terrific punster. One fond childhood memory I have was of taking road trips, usually to visit our grandparents in Ligonier, and asking him to tell the story of “Falling Rock” . Dad  had concocted quite a tale for our enjoyment about how Falling Rock was a young Indian boy who had strayed from his tribe. I don’t remember all the details, but I remember begging for the story. And I remember it ended something like, “And that’s why to this very day you still see signs that say “Watch for Falling Rock.”

Over the last year, Dad taught me so much more. He taught me how to handle the worst of situations with dignity, grace and humor. Over and over again when things were tough, he made the best of it. Throughout everything, he kept his sense of humor and dry wit at hand.

Toward the end of his life, he was talking with my niece on the telephone. She said, “So Grandpa, how are you handling everything.”
Dad, now restricted to the hospital bed in his bedroom, paused, and then replied to her, succinctly and true to form, “With style.”

One of my most treasured memories is of Dad and me sitting together this past fall, writing limericks. When writing limericks, Dad always included the name of a city and he was bold in his choices (I mean who tries to rhyme with Cincinnati!?). He also didn’t let rhythm and complete rhyme hold him back. So, it seemed only fitting to include a limerick today—and in honor of Dad, I’m including a city name and taking a little bit of license with the rhyming.

There once was a man from Aurora
who was a bold verbal explorer
Though not always loquacious
he was ever sagacious
And without him our lives are much poorer

Not long before Dad died, I told him about writing essays about him with my fourth grade students. I told him how I’d come to realize how much I’d learned from him. I shared all my reasons and examples and finally I thanked him.

Dad listened while I talked, and after I finished, he looked at me and said, in his typical, understated way, “Well, Molly, I never knew I taught you all that.”

Well, you did, Dad, you did.

The Progressive Poem…isn’t here!

You’re probably looking for the Progressive Poem, but you’re going to have to journey a bit further to find it. You can whistle and dance and maybe even do some puddle jumping along the way! Yes, Buffy Silverman set me up beautifully for today’s line, but I got into a bit of a jam. The fabulous Linda Mitchell graciously offered to step up and take my place. Please take a trip over to her blog to check out how she added to this year’s offering. She’s sharing her contribution at her blog, A Word Edgewise.

Linda, once again, thank you so, so much!!!