A Child's Trauma

 My old collection of black-and-white photos of our Welsh Street gang is one of my most treasured possessions. One snap-shot however is so charged with pain and heartache that even now, one glance instantly hurls me to the front stoop of a hot sunny morning where the “Grow-Up Monster” dragged my nine year old body along against my wishes.

 

We lived in a tiny house of six on a dead-end street with lots of kids and fathers in blue collars who worked in factories. My mom’s sister, Laura lived behind us and my great aunt lived three houses up. There were no fences and all the neighbors looked out for one another. Summers rang out with children’s laughter as we played all kinds of games in yards, on porches, in the surrounding fields and, yes, even in the street, which had very little traffic except for the residents.

 

I spotted the tiny crumpled body just as the shouting and screaming began. We were running from Kathy’s yard across to our own when the milkman heard the screams, slammed on his breaks and leapt from his truck to find that his left rear tire had pinned-down the head of little Timmy though I didn’t know who the child was at first. The distraught driver got back into his milk truck as the grown-ups tried to decide whether it would be better to back up or pull forward. Either action would cause more damage to the small toddler, so the driver again jumped out and began lifting the side of the truck as tears and sweat streamed down his ashen face. His whole body trembled as he put more and more force behind each attempt to raise the giant vise. I thought the veins in his neck were about to burst. One man on night shift soon joined in on a venture most thought was hopeless.

Neighbors were rushing around, there were tears and screams and shouting, and as my Aunt Laura surged to the scene with towels and a sheet, my mom attempted to corral the kids into our backyard so we couldn’t see. For the most part, we did as Mom asked. We sobbed helplessly and my body seemed to implode with gut wrenching heaves in response to the unbelievable terror.

Timmy’s mother wailed in high pitched moans and ran frantically back into her house looking for a shotgun. Like a real miracle, the truck actually rose enough for Laura to slide the tiny child’s lifeless body out and wrap his head with towels so his mom wouldn’t see the worst. Miner’s Hospital was only two blocks away so Laura, holding Timmy, tried to calm his mother, as they were guided into the back seat of my Aunt Angela’s car. They sped to the emergency room while we all stood in their wake, crushed into a nauseous, deadening silence. I soon began racing toward that bloody car, following as they turned right onto First St. I stopped my pursuit in the alley behind The Hotel Gunter gasping for air and sobbing uncontrollably.

I couldn’t imagine Mrs. Donald’s emotional state as the seconds ticked and the terror escalated. I pictured her holding her blood soaked son, unable to see his head, praying perhaps for a miracle, longing to shoot herself were he to die. Timmy’s blood also remained behind. It pooled between the cobblestones right in front of our house along with pieces of a saltine cracker, the one my mom had given Timmy a few minutes before the accident. He had apparently dropped the cracker under the milk truck and had crawled under to get it just as the milkman was pulling away from the curb.

The driver broke his back and ended up at Miner’s Hospital too, where he suffered a nervous breakdown. Several years later, he died of a broken heart, but that poor gentleman who had suffered in so much agony, became a hero to me, along with Timmy’s mom who chose to keep on living, even after the loss of her sweet adorable little boy.

I have a photo of Timmy. He’s standing by our front stoop wearing a cowboy hat. I don’t need a picture of the courageous man in uniform nor of all the scarlet fluid and tissue that created a permanent stain long after it had been washed away along with the saltine cracker. Mom was just being kind as she always was. She was our neighborhood’s greatest blessing; my greatest gift. I prayed really hard after that, that she wouldn’t blame herself. I was much too afraid to ask her, too fearful of making her cry all over again. I couldn’t bear her tears.

The Donald family moved on soon after the accident. I heard that several years later they had had another child in another town though I never saw them again. I believed that everyone responded exactly as they were meant to respond to the tragedy that day. I was proud of my mom and my aunts and the other adults on the street for their quick response. I didn’t understand how they could possibly have the courage to stay so calm. I knew I would never have been able to do that. I was allowed to fall apart. I never told the adults how much we had all needed them that day, how much I had needed them.

I’m sure my playmates were marked for life just as I have been, though we spoke very little about it afterwards. I imagine all of us being tormented with frightening nightmares and fears of death. It’s astonishing to me that some of our deepest wounds, our most grievous tragedies don’t syphon off our own blood supply or leave physical scars yet they are permanently recorded along with the imagined sounds of crushed bone against cobblestones and the horrific grunts of a human lifting a two ton truck. What excruciating pain!

I scooted over on our small front stoop after that, making room for a mother and her lost son, a husband who received the dreaded phone call, an unborn child who had a brother he or she would never know but would always know, and especially for the man who was broken in two by an unearthly strength to save what couldn’t be saved.

 

 

Monday Morning Meeting of the Archetypes

It’s Crowded in Here

Climbing the stairs to my second floor classroom at 7:00 AM had always been so invigorating.  I used to be ready and eager to begin a new day often lugging several tote bags filled with manuals and papers up the stairs to second floor, gazing in amazement at the colorful bulletin boards that brightened the walls with children’s work. All the teachers had such clever ideas. We were a good team. I would open the double doors and turn left as always, wondering if my friend in the computer lab was in yet. Those days are over now.

I unlocked my door and switched on the lights, needing to open windows and place assignments on the board, but as I sat my things down, I noticed that my chair was missing. In its place was a bright orange stool with a cushioned seat.

“Oh, well,” I thought, “No biggie. Someone probably borrowed it.” I dropped my bundles beside my desk and hurriedly began busying myself. Finally it was time to sit and make a few last minute notes. After brushing off some bits of cracker and chalk dust, I sat on the worn stool and that's when it happened! That's when the entire classroom changed! Instantly the room felt crowded and there was a strange bluish light. I looked up to discover that I wasn’t alone. The student desks were occupied! 

“OK. I must be dreaming,” I thought to myself, so I gave this eclectic crew of characters my full attention. There was a young child, a Native American, a bag lady, a nun in black garb, a tree-hugging hippie, an absent-minded professor, a prostitute and an analyst, along with a few others. “Good morning,” I said as though I had been expecting them. “This must be a Committee meeting?” (What made me say that? It just seemed right.)

A small girl in the front row who was wearing a cowgirl outfit, flipped back her hat and sat on top of her desk. “Have you lost something, Mrs. Walker?” she giggled, placing a hand over her smile, one tooth missing.

“Well, yes! My chair is missing. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that would you?” I asked teasingly, drumming my fingernails on the desktop..

“No, I really don’t,” she fibbed. “But what I do want to know is, ’Where’s the party? Surely there’s a party around here someplace, with cake and music and games and prizes! I love prizes. I can sing, too, if you’d like.’ ”

“That’s enough, Dale Evans! Sit down and be quiet,” the nun said sternly. “Young ladies do not sit on top of their desks.” Even I was fearful of that voice. “And that gun and holster you’re wearing,” Sister continued, “is now mine. Give it.” Little Dale unhooked the belt and gave Sister her weapon. She longed to tell the stern woman that this wasn’t the way it was done in the movies, but she wisely chose to remain silent.

 “Do you know why we’re here?” the bag lady spoke with such a kind voice.

“No,” I lied. I was beginning to realize that my classroom was filled with meez, with parts of the me whom I carry around inside. I’d been trying to ditch a few of them for years but I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, so I sat up straight and smiled at all of me.

“Now that you’re all here,” I began,  “Who would like to speak first. I will give that person a feather and no one may interrupt them until they finish speaking. Then the feather may be passed on to someone else.”

The bag lady took the feather and began to talk, though with a shy, timid voice I could hardly hear. “What if we’re here to become who we are? To wake up and shake up and and make up the take-up.” Scratching her head, she continued, “What if we’re here through the ones we’ve been sent using energy spent who have given consent for the ride.”

“Now, Missy,” said Sr. Josephine, ”you know that a waterless well cannot ripple.”

“I know,” Bag Lady replied. “Yet the letting go so lightens the heart.”

Now I wasn’t going to correct Sr. Josephine even though she had spoken out of turn. Bag lady was still speaking in riddles as she passed the feather on to Professor, whose hand was raised. “Permeate, hesitate, escape the windowless waiting room whithering…….”

The professor, pushing up his wire-rimmed spectacles, hesitantly touched the feather by wrapping a tissue around it first to prevent germs. “Maggie, me Darling,” he grinned toward Bag Lady, “there’s much truth in what you say. The metronome of life is constantly in rhythm with the subtle flux of magnetic resonance, bursting forth in continual gaseous flame. The metronome controls it all; the flow of conscious awareness, the food production, the baby’s cry, the movement of currents, the solar plexus.”

“May I speak next,” interrupted the mother impatiently. The professor seemed to have made his point, or at least, she hoped he was finished. He never did know when to quit. “Thank you, Sir for bringing up the solar plexus. Our teacher here is struggling with issues related to her gut feelings, and that is, after all, why we’re here.”

“Of course,” the others agreed.

“We know about your diagnosis, Mrs. Walker- Jody- and we know you don’t want to quit teaching, but we also know that you have no choice. Instead of trying to hide your pain, you’ve got to speak to your principal, explain your predicament. I know you feel irreplaceable in this classroom, but let me reassure you, someone else can come in and take over, even in the middle of the semester, and the children will be fine, the parents will be fine. You have nothing to be ashamed of.”

But I did feel ashamed. I had severe muscle pain, getting worse every day but I looked perfectly fine. I no longer could sleep, there was numbness and tingling in my extremities, and pressure points that when touched sent me into spasms, but the worst part was that my memory capacity was dwindling. They called it fibromyalgia.  I hesitated to tell my principal because it would place a burden on her, one which she didn’t deserve. Finding a replacement in October would be difficult.

The mother archetype passed the feather to my Native American grandmother who solved everything. "Each of us is manifestation of Mother Earth - Father Sky. We seek to experience what it’s like to be human. You are more than you can ever know, more than an individual with a name and a heart beat. Let me give you a bit of advice, Jody.”

“Thank you, I would love that,” I said with great honor.

“Liar, liar, pants on fire!”

“Oh, it’s Ruby,” I thought. I was hoping to get through this without hearing from the prostitute. She knows I’ve sold my soul on many occasions in the past; to keep the peace, to please others, to fit in, to keep people from knowing what a jerk I am. “Where is the jerk anyway?”  She’s usually close by.

“OK, Ruby, I did fail to mention that I’m afraid the principal will think I’m making the whole thing up.  I look normal enough. She and the faculty will think I’m such a wimp.” I said.

“Suck it up.”

“That’s enough out of you, Ruby!” scolded Sr. Josephine. “Grandmother still has the floor.”

The Native American then declared, with much pride, “Here’s what I recommend. Allow yourself this feeling of vulnerability. The universe has other plans for you now. You must be willing to allow whatever happens to happen. Welcome it with joy in your heart. Life is not about you. You are about Life. We are all part of human race but it's not a race at all and it has nothing to do with winning. It's really about getting up every time you fall and moving on with integrity. May your life/dance be for beauty.

Deep within, I understood. I slowly rose ignoring the muscle spasms. The orange stool vanished in a flash of rushing air, the third graders’ desks were empty again and I knew exactly what I had to do.

J. W. 10/06/15

 

 

 

 

Encounter With The Deep

What if Time plays tricks? What if its seemingly dependable cadence could momentarily pause for a young child, while continuing in its normal pace for everyone else?  I’ve always wondered if some magical metronome cast a spell on me so very long ago, a spell so palpable that the secret interlude has evermore been branded onto my soul.

 It was summer, 1949, and, as usual, a cyclical metamorphosis transformed our family.  Fishing poles saw the light of day and the lakes and streams nearby drew us in like magnets. I had become an expert on yellow-spotted salamanders and crayfish. Like most kids, I flowed rhythmically with the subtle effects of seasonal tempos, so when my parents mentioned that we were going to the ocean I cheered delightedly, knowing it had to be good.

We crammed our bodies into Dad’s old Chevy with baggage plugging every available cavity. The initial excitement sustained me for a time. I could comprehend neither the challenges of an eight-hour road trip, nor the immense body of water that would be greeting us upon our arrival. 

“Like a gazillion Deep Creek Lakes!” my sister had exclaimed. I knew she was smart. She was almost in third grade! But not being able to see land on the other side? No way! I could, however, picture the exploration of new uncharted territory and that was all the motivation I needed.

I peered out the rear window at lush green pines bracing each other skyward like book ends in a mountainous monastery cloaking their trails and tales under dark limbs. Gradually, however, the quest-laden forests diminished into small rolling hills that eventually morphed into mile after mile of flat, monotonous lowland.  Statuesque billboards guarded cornfields like stoic totems. Then tinier signposts, inorganic pillars of prophesy, intruded into the reverie. “HAVE---YOU---BEEN---SAVED?” my sister read each one aloud. She struggled then, with “REPENT!” and “SAL-VA-TION”. 

“What’s that stuff got to do with the ocean?” I wondered. I began to have second thoughts. Were these small flashing posters of doom hypnotizing a small child, preparing her for her appointment with the hidden heart of the cosmos? A sad, whitewashed church in a moat of broken clam shells approached and then departed, filling me with an ache for home.  

I nestled next to Aunt Irene and closed my eyes, lulled by the rhythm of tires against concrete. Finally, however, a crescendo buffeted with the sharp squawking of sea gulls, hundreds of them. I leapt with excitement, banging my head on the tiny overhead light. We were passing small inlets where sleek, white winged creatures were diving for groceries in slaphappy currents. I inhaled vague, briny aromas and could almost feel the tummy bumps as I scanned the swell of sailboats and dinghies bobbing in the coves.

“Won’t be long now!” everyone shouted excitedly. Fishing wharfs sped by and boats in dry dock, road signs and more billboards of little sunburned girls with puppies pulling at bathing suits. Stalled traffic and beeping car horns made my dad’s neck blush, and like a thermometer, the inflammation rose up into his cheek bones coming to rest amid beads of sweat on his broad forehead. Mom’s pretend smile and her quiet humming did little to ease the tension till we finally crossed over the drawbridge connecting us to Brigantine.  

 “There it is!” Mom twisted her head around to point to the Atlantic Ocean, but that awesome, magnificent creature had spotted me first, throwing me into some kind of freeze-framed over-drive. Without warning, everything around me stopped as though someone had accidentally hit the planetary pause button. I found myself alone in a place of utter stillness and timelessness. A hazy vault-like separation stood between me and all outside sound as family faded into a misty blur. I was in a wide-eyed trance, staring helplessly, longingly. The ocean before me was an enormous swelling of ripples and currents, calm yet commanding, breathing me into her, rising and falling, taking me deeper.  My heartbeat and breath became entrained with this enigmatic hump-backed mariner of the deep.

I knew then without knowing, that life was communion. I was given a glimpse of a primordial essence that waits beneath the outer reality of things. The ocean was alive! The whole world was alive and so was I!  It has taken a lifetime to even try to articulate what really happened to me that day. I had slipped through some thin vortex into another dimension, a universe beyond ordinary consciousness. I have no idea how long I drifted in that netherworld of silence where the breath was everything and everything was breath. I sensed that I was probably only one blink away from erasing the entire revelation, but it was Irene who drew me back. With her gentle touch she summoned me to her so Dad could again see out the rear view mirror.  I had returned to “real” time with nobody even noticing that I had left.

That little girl and I still marvel at the ocean’s power on that glorious day. She had allured us like some pied piper, to enter into the realm of the mystic where all we had to do was appreciate our ability to appreciate. I want to believe that there are times when the great unknown speaks to us across time and culture of a longing we will never understand. 

My vision of an alternate reality kindled in me a perpetual gratitude and I find myself smiling now just as the little girl in me smiled that day at Brigantine Beach.  We entered the small community with its corner grocery stores and postcard apothecaries, where people with red faces and Noxzema noses shuffled around in sandals and old shorts; where a child from the hills of Western Maryland could dash across a hot, sandy beach and cool her toes, playing keep-away with her new best friend, the Mother-Of-It-All, sharing the secret rendezvous with no one. 

 

 

 

 

Metamorphosis

Metamorphosis

Metamorphosis

 

The grand choreographer has quite a sense of humor. Saturday’s divine comedy must have drifted out into the sunlight along with the dandelion root I had just extricated from our garden. “M-o-m! M-o-m!”  Brad eerily whispered from the catalpa tree. “Put down the hoe! Come here!” he pleaded in his most ‘Bela Lugosi’ like voice.

“What’s up?” I asked, continuing to dig.

“You gotta’ see this,” he implored.

I dropped my hoe and headed toward him, relieved that the squiggly brown snake he was grasping wasn’t a reptile at all but merely a small branch. 

“Look at that,” he pointed breathlessly. Finally I saw! What a sight! We’d been given the privilege of witnessing “Life” in transformation. Clinging to the rough tree bark was the outer skeleton of some quite large insect. A crack in its armor had revealed a creature with two black, protruding eyes and a long, sleek body. It was slowly emerging from its former self into the Saturday morning sunshine.

“Wow!” I exclaimed with a wondrous respect for Mother Nature. “Don’t touch it. I’ll be right back.” I dashed toward the house in search of the video camera. Minutes later I emerged a true naturalist ready to film history in the making.

“What is it?” he blurted as I began filming our wildlife documentary. He seemed a bit troubled by my somewhat erratic behavior.

“I’m not sure, Bud,” I replied as I focused in on the creature from different angles, “But that shell with its six claws looks like the remains of a seventeen year locust, a cicada. I thought they weren’t due again for another five years.”

“Yuk!” he said in disgust. I’ll never be able to eat again.”

“Ah, look, Brad,” I continued tenderly, ignoring his discomfort. “Look at those little green wings.”

“Yea?”

“Well,” I encouraged, “The locust is waiting for them to dry in the breeze. Watch with me. They’ll look much larger as they begin to dry.”

The poor creature, who would probably have preferred to molt in private, was squirming and wiggling in an effort to free himself. Meanwhile, our witness to Life’s effort of renewal would surly be the envy of any biologist. “This just might make the channel nine news,” I joked, trying to impress upon him the significance of the event. “Don’t you want to watch?”

“Nah,” was his nonchalant reply as he drifted off in search of the other neighborhood kids.

Just then the phone rang. Brad ran to answer it looking for an excuse to get away. It was his sister, Amy, who was at a friend’s house down the street. She asked to talk to me but Brad told her I couldn’t come to the phone.

“Why? What’s she doing?” asked Amy.

“She’s taking bug videos.”

“What?”

“She’s taking videos of this creepy bug I found in the cigar tree.”

“ Ew! Sounds gross.”

And there it was in a locust shell. I had followed some urge to record the awesomeness of nature while my kids seemed to mock me from the sidelines. That wasn’t unusual. After all, Amy was almost 13 and Brad would soon be 8. It wouldn’t be the last time I’d be accused of being a bit out of touch with reality.

So there we were; me, the tree, the birdsong, the luscious green grass, the weeds, the anticipation and the miniscule messenger with six crusted claws.  It took longer than I thought for the cicada’s wings to expand into their full size, but as I stood witness, zooming the lens in and out and shooting from different angles, I was also listening to that wonderful aria of the neighborhood children at play. We definitely lived in a kid-friendly zone, looking out for each other’s children as they climbed trees, drove hot-wheels bikes, organized whiffle-ball games or worked on friendship bracelets on front porches. I treasured the days we could all spend outside, and I wasn’t going to let a little cynicism get in the way of my enterprise.

The longer I stood there dancing ‘round the tree, the more I was beginning to sense that, like this cicada, I too, had cracks in my armor, an armor that needed to be shed. Perhaps some metamorphosis was occurring inside me. Fear of failure had definitely been a burdensome cloak that needed to go. I had been so ashamed of this horror of all horrors and had worn it much too long. I was a vulnerable soul who had wanted to appear invulnerable. Why?  Everyone’s been shattered and knows heartache. That’s the one thing we all share.

I especially needed to overcome my fear of returning to the classroom. I had taught third grade for ten years in a wonderful school until the birth of our first child, at which point I longed to be a stay-at-home mom. My husband, Carey and I had agreed that I could devote my energies to childrearing until our kids were in school. Because of a miscarriage between our two little ones, I had been out of touch with teaching for ten years and had grave reservations about returning. I was terrified of some unknown disaster that would surely expose my incompetence were I to cross the threshold of my own dichotomy; longing to teach and yet certain of my own inadequacy. I was terrified. Would I still be able to handle discipline, juggle all the paper work, update my technology skills, meet individual needs? Could I inspire my new students with a love of learning? I didn’t know.

Yet, as I communed with this tiny creature whose wings were spreading out like fans, splitting the sun’s rays into brilliant pastels, I had the sensation that I was receiving some kind of insight. An intimate unveiling was in the breeze and it seemed to whisper, “Breathe.” I did. Then I inhaled again and smiled on the out-breath. It felt soothing, this “belonging-in- the-moment” way of navigating the front yard. I let the peacefulness calm my entire body. “Nice,” I thought. “I need to breathe more often.”

My little insect companion who’d spent 17 years of life underground had no choice but to be in the “now”. That long swath of time was imbedded into his DNA, and now, that part of who or what he was had ended. He had lived in a carcass designed to die and yet there he was flapping paper thin wings that would take him to his mate. I pondered this brief, intimate encounter, thinking of the new classroom I would be entering in the fall and hoping I was ready for the challenge.

 Later that afternoon, Zest came stomping through the screen door and that same Invisible Bard, the Dancer of Great Mystery, spoke to me again, this time wrapped in the voices of innocence. Brad had ushered the neighborhood gang into the living room where they plopped their red-faced, sweaty bodies onto the carpet.

“Hi, Mrs. Walker!” Kathy was first to speak, followed by the others. “Can we see the bug videos?”

“What!” I asked in astonishment.

“The bug videos. Brad said you took some videos of this big bug on your tree out front.”

“Yea,” Ronnie chimed in. “Can we watch it?”

Now, by that time, I had already watched my home movie. My respect for David Attenborough had grown exponentially, frame by frame, as jerky scenes of this filial creature juxtaposed against a telephone-wired sky, and some shadowy views of the grass and dirt at my feet, had bored me to tears. I didn’t do justice to the little insect on his debut performance.

 

“Oh,” I apologized, “I’m afraid the video didn’t turn out too well. I think you’d be kind-of bored.” I couldn’t believe what was happening! Brad and Amy had told the whole neighborhood about the bug and they were all spellbound.

Then, Amy, who had been reading on the couch, threw the winning pitch. “Oh, come on, Mom. We want to see it!”

My kids had become interested in spite of themselves and I had uncovered an illuminating truth. Had that tiny creature not been pushed a bit by Mother Nature to rid itself from the past, (a past with which it might have been quite content) it would never have experienced the bliss of flight.

We watched the film in fast forward, which made it do-able, and followed with a cookie and lemonade discussion about bugs, spiders and snakes. Oh, was I in my glory! Those precious kids had so much they wanted to share and they had come to the right place for I was, if nothing else, a listener. I realized then that even though classroom technologies and logistics would have changed drastically over the years, and those dreaded committee meetings would still rob me of time better spent in the classroom, children were still children. And, oh, how I loved them!

Mr. Pat Burns, the official community flora and fauna expert informed us that the cicada molts many times over a period of years and that each year, some cicadas do reach full size. We headed to the library to learn more about the little creature whose empty shell of a former life now resides in a jar in our son’s room. Amy made several sketches of the visitor and both continued to get out the boring video when they thought I wasn’t watching.

And me? I am still breathing, am becoming more conscious of each breath and I realize that perfection is not the goal. I want to be real; worn, faded “Velveteen Rabbit” real. There are invisible laws in the cosmic realm that order the balance of nature, laws that even I must be subject to because I too, am a creature of the natural world, yet unlike other life forms, we humans are conscious of the fact that we are conscious and therefore each of us is free to choose when and how quickly our interior lives evolve. I parted ways with my fear of failure that day. Its foolishness flew away like a sulking buzzard searching for road-kill and though I’ve been defeated again and again and again, Failure and I have become quite good friends. Perhaps she has been my greatest teacher.

Jody Walker  

 

 



The Lady in Potters' Field

According to Wikipedia, A potter's field or common grave is an American term for a place for the burial of unknown or indigent people. The expression derives from the Bible, referring to a field used for the extraction of potter's clay, which was useless for agriculture but could be used as a burial site. To me, it is sacred ground. I realize that metaphorically, sacred ground is not a place at all but a state of consciousness in which one feels wholly connected to a grander vision.  There are, however, physical locals, where thoughts, feelings and emotions align in a way that allow divine paradox to enter on a visceral level. Potters’ Field in Cumberland, MD is just such a place for me. 

 

I realize that for many who pass by this grassy field on a daily basis, it is probably just that, a grassy field. For me it is the holiest of cemeteries.  My great aunt has blessed this mound with her precious relics for over 50 years. Dad brought me here often as a child. My earliest memories are of running up and down between the rows of wooden crosses with my brother, catching grasshoppers, looking for toads or searching for leaves or acorns from the surrounding woods. When I grew old enough to understand, my father began to talk more about his aunt Bert, lamenting that he hadn’t been allowed to bury her along side her parents in the Catholic cemetery because she had left “The Church”. Though I sensed his sadness, it was years before the ramifications of this one act, this single decision of a woman’s searching for her own truth became genuinely significant to me. Bertha’s essence mingles here with the other, the poor, the deranged, the disavowed. Yet the spiritual chemistry of these combined lives and deaths bring a peaceful dignity to this paupers’ burial ground.

Many people become completely broken when they discover that life is not always reasonable, that it won’t always flow sequentially, that it’s not always logical, orderly or well known. The unknown is too much for them to even consider. Yet here lies a woman who was willing to face the mystery. At some point, she made the decision to stand by her convictions without shame, knowing she’d be shunned for doing so.  Bert had rejected the family faith and, in turn, her family, except for my father, rejected her. It would have been easier for everyone involved had she just gone through the motions, pretending to believe in a dogma she’d outgrown; easier on everyone but her, that is. She could have continued to bless herself from the holy water font at church. “Isn’t all water holy?” I picture her asking. She could have remained kneeling through rituals, beating her heart and reciting the prayers of her own unworthiness even though her God saw everyone’s worth and dignity.

Bert refused to betray her own heart, couldn’t live except in her own truth and now she rests here somewhere under one of these white iconic crosses surrounded by bouquets of clover. I keep returning to this patch of ground long after my own father’s death. It’s a sacred space holding so much more than these pale, anesthetic symbols of namelessness. I wish I knew which plot was hers, but souls who had no rest in life are now left to revel in anonymity.

Plywood symbols would crucify her image for all eternity, but not while I’m around. My dad passed on his reverence for this spot and I look to the woods that guard these graves with trust, wanting to dissolve amid stoic oak pillars just long enough to find some clarity in my own life.

I’ve heard it said that the truth will set you free, but it can also be a terrifying plunge into the unknown. I think of courageous women like Rosa Parks who said, “I will no longer act on the outside in a way that contradicts the truth that I hold deeply on the inside. I will no longer act as if I were less than the whole person I know myself inwardly to be.”

Somewhere along the way, my Aunt Bert, whom I only vaguely remember, had paid attention to her heart and her gut, had chosen to lived from her center, and even though the years must have scratched and clawed, she became a woman who was true to herself. I’m sure she became empowered by that choice and within the sadness of the archaic practice of “shunning” I also imagine the breath of freedom that must always accompany the undoing of one less mask. 

Just like my long lost relative, I too have thought patterns that no longer serve me, yet I often continue to nurture them. Each one is an obstacle that needs to be excavated. Bert was able to release her allegiance to the thought, “This cannot be done”. May I too, have the courage to develop a relationship with the unknown.

Here I am with my grandmother and my dad.


Jody Walker

If My Eighty-five Year Old Self Could Speak (What might she say?)

Dear Jody at 69,

We are moving a bit slow now, you and I, and you think you have memory problems now? Just wait. We still have very little fear of death yet are squeamish regarding the inevitable pain. I guess it will be like passing through the birth canal again. I won’t go on about the plant and animal species that have become extinct in the past 16 years or the heartaches of militarism and greed. Eyesight is worse and we now practice selective hearing. We are allowed a few vices in old age.  Our inner vision is getting stronger however, so I know you’ll be happy to hear that. 

Since early childhood we’ve been drawn on a quest to realize an intimate experience with the divine. Maybe it started that day when we spotted the ocean for the very first time and we felt such an expanded sense of pure presence, losing the awareness of the boundaries of our own body. Now we understand that a switch that controls the amygdala (brain’s sense of boundaries) shut down as we apparently entered a portal to peak awareness. I still feel energized just thinking about the gift we received from the Universe that day.  No wonder we never shared that encounter with anyone. For so many years we wondered why we kept that experience inside, but we really didn’t have an adequate vocabulary to explain the unexplainable. We never will.

 

And then there was the family picnic at New Germany. That memory is also embedded. I close my eyes and can still see the colors and light and feel that love for our family so strongly. Why would we not share what had happened? I wasn’t a bit shy about sharing the crayfish I found in the stream or showing my mom the unusual texture of the bark on that one tree Bill and I had climbed. I should have shouted at the top of my lungs that I felt the love my parents shared, that I loved them so much and didn’t want the day to ever end. We kept that inside. Why? We kept too much inside.

You know how we always had the sense of not belonging, of not quite fitting in? I remember how our introspection caused us to descend into profound stages of loneliness and emptiness. I think it was the burden of trying to live in two opposing dimensions. We were searching for a detached emotional state, internally longing to be who we truly were, (vulnerable) while trying to maintain the appearance of normalcy on the outside. The sledgehammer depression that broke us open had probably arisen from our feelings of disempowerment. We were definitely in the grip of a spiritual crisis that went on for many years. When did the balance of power begin to shift? Now I know that as long as we’re in human form, we will perhaps always feel like something is missing, but now we know that it’s ok and perhaps perfectly normal to feel like the odd-one-out.

We were frustrated because we were unable to reach God through reason. We fought surrender with all the power we had. We lost. I guess we’re supposed to lose, because that’s when we begin to awaken to the Great-All-That-Is. 

One of our strongest archetypes has been that of the “wounded child” but the spiritual path of the wounded child cracks open the learning path of forgiveness. We have been awakened to a deep sense of compassion toward people who make mistakes and toward the vulnerable, because of our own wounds and maybe that’s why we’ve always wanted to help other wounded children.

I urge you to see the possibilities for positive change against impossible odds. Follow your intuitive knowing more. To sense energy information but then to repress that information for lack of rational support is to court madness. Never negotiate ethics. Remember that our thoughts, feelings and emotions have universal consequences and that all people are basically good. Don’t allow your spiritual legacy to go dormant. I know this much is true. When we use its creative force we are in concert with the entire universe. 

There is no reason to pity the old. Instead, the young should envy us. We are valuable in our sense of dignity rather than in any sense of usefulness. We have experienced so much and I do believe we’re each a manifestation of the divine seeking to experience what it’s like to be human. I know that we are more than we can ever know, more than an individual with a name and a heart beat. Besides, behind this pale mask worn in the “aging” ritual is a beautiful princess or prince waiting to be born or maybe even a dolphin!

My card club friends have asked me to give you a bit of advice so here goes. “Live as if you were living for the second time and have acted just as wrongly the first time as you’re about to act now.”

I love it! I love you.

Sincerely,

Us at 85. 

PS

I don’t think the divine plays by our rules. 

Jody Walker

 

“If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another. If you wish to know that you are safe, cause another to know that they are safe. If you wish to better understand seemingly incomprehensible things, help another to better understand. If you wish to heal your own sadness or anger, seek to heal the sadness or anger of another.” — Dalai Lama

 

Twelve Principles of Creation Spirituality

by Matthew Fox

1. The universe is fundamentally a blessing.
Our relationship with the Universe fills us with awe.

2. In Creation, God is both immanent and transcendent. This is panentheism which is not theism (God out there) and not atheism (no God anywhere).
We experience that the Divine is in all things and all things are in the Divine.

3. God is as much Mother as Father, as much Child as Parent, as much God in mystery as the God in history, as much beyond all words and images as in all forms and beings.
We are liberated from the need to cling to God in one form or one literal name.

4. In our lives, it is through the work of spiritual practice that we find our deep and true selves.
Through the arts of meditation and silence we cultivate a clarity of mind and move beyond fear into compassion and community.

5. Our inner work can be understood as a four-fold journey involving:
- awe, delight, amazement (known as the Via Positiva)
- uncertainty, darkness, suffering, letting go (Via Negativa)
- birthing, creativity, passion (Via Creativa)
- justice, healing, celebration (Via Transformativa)
We weave through these paths like a spiral danced, not a ladder climbed.

6. Every one of us is a mystic.
We can enter the mystical as much through beauty (Via Positiva) as through contemplation and suffering (Via Negativa). We are born full of wonder and can recover it at any age.

7. Every one of us is an artist.
Whatever the expression of our creativity, it is our prayer and praise (Via Creativa).

8. Every one of us is a prophet.
Our prophetic work is to interfere with all forms of injustice and that which interrupts authentic life (Via Transformativa).

9. Diversity is the nature of the Universe. We rejoice in and courageously honor the rich diversity within the Cosmos and expressed among individuals and across multiple cultures, religions and ancestral traditions.

10. The basic work of God is compassion and we, who are all original blessings and sons and daughters of the Divine, are called to compassion.
We acknowledge our shared interdependence; we rejoice at one another's joys and grieve at one another's sorrows and labor to heal the causes of those sorrows.

11. There are many wells of faith and knowledge drawing from one underground river of Divine wisdom. The practice of honoring, learning and celebrating the wisdom collected from these wells is Deep Ecumenism.
We respect and embrace the wisdom and oneness that arises from the diverse wells of all the sacred traditions of the world.

12. Ecological justice is essential for the sustainability of life on Earth.
Ecology is the local expression of cosmology and so we commit to live in light of this value: to pass on the beauty and health of Creation to future generations.       

The Grace of Mutual Belonging

As a child living in Frostburg, I spent lots of time at New Germany State Park, but there was one particular picnic that is so imbedded in my memory that I can almost reach out and touch it at any time, feel it like a smooth pebble in the pocket of my favorite jeans. I lost myself that day in an instant of cosmic kinship. I was given a vision of something beyond the trap of dualism and was no longer separate and apart. I had dissolved into the wild joy of being a part of something greater than myself.

 Mom and Dad wanted us to find a new spot that day, a place where no one else had been before, so we didn’t stay on the paths or trails. We followed a small brook that fed into the lake until we came to an opening in the trees were the grass seemed as smooth and inviting as moss-green velvet. Mom’s red-and-white checkered table cloth made the perfect center piece. 

My brother Bill and I had been climbing trees when I suddenly became mesmerized by the bark of a locust tree. I kept touching it, examining the unusual patterns it created but when I finally looked up, everything around me had changed. I could still see my brother and sisters, Mom and Dad, but they were surrounded by a landscape that was now glowing, as though the light was radiating from inside each blade of grass, within each leaf and flower, up from the small stream’s shimmering treasures. I breathed in the fragrance as though the entire scene entered my lungs with each in-breath, and I clung to the branch in wonder. Apparently I had entered into some portal of peak awareness outside of time. I still feel energized just thinking about the gift I received from the Universe that day. 

All I have to do is close my eyes and the brilliant light show returns and again, I remember so vividly the love I felt for my family that day. I wasn’t a bit shy, later that day, about sharing the crayfish I found in the stream or showing my mom the unusual texture of the bark on that one tree Bill and I had climbed. But I said nothing about the “Vision”, nothing about the special way they had all been framed in brilliance and color and warmth. I never did tell them how, for an instant outside of time, the forest acoustics, its splashing-brook laughter and its wildlife rhythms, had frozen in place along with the vapors of pine and campfire. I was so young and wouldn’t have been able to explain it even if I had tried. I should have shouted at the top of my lungs that day that I knew the love my parents shared. I understood it. Perhaps that small little corner of the world was also in love with us and wanted a small child to be in on her mysterious playfulness.

Jody Walker

Leaving Space/Time in a Worn Out Chevy

What if Time plays tricks? What if its seemingly dependable cadence could momentarily pause for a young child, while continuing in its normal pace for everyone else?  I’ve always wondered if some magical metronome cast a spell on me so very long ago, a spell so palpable that the secret interlude has evermore been branded onto my soul.

 It was summer, 1949, and, as usual, a cyclical metamorphosis transformed our family.  Fishing poles saw the light of day and the lakes and streams nearby drew us in like magnets. I had become an expert on yellow-spotted salamanders and crayfish. Like most kids, I flowed rhythmically with the subtle effects of seasonal tempos, so when my parents mentioned that we were going to the ocean I cheered delightedly, knowing it had to be good. We crammed our bodies into Dad’s old Chevy with baggage plugging every available cavity. The initial excitement sustained me for a time. I could comprehend neither the challenges of an eight-hour road trip, nor the immense body of water that would be greeting us upon our arrival. 

“Like a gazillion Deep Creek Lakes!” my sister had exclaimed. I knew she was smart. She was almost in third grade! But not being able to see land on the other side? No way! I could, however, picture the exploration of new uncharted territory and that was all the motivation I needed.

I peered out the rear window at lush green pines bracing each other skyward like book ends in a mountainous monastery with trails and tales hidden under dark limbs. Gradually, however, the quest-laden forests diminished into small rolling hills that eventually morphed into mile after mile of flat, monotonous lowland.  Statuesque billboards guarded cornfields like stoic totems. Then tinier signposts, inorganic pillars of prophesy, intruded into the reverie. “HAVE---YOU---BEEN---SAVED?” my sister read each one aloud. She struggled then, with “REPENT!” and “SAL-VA-TION”. 

“What’s that stuff got to do with the ocean?” I wondered. I began to have second thoughts. Were these small flashing posters of doom hypnotizing a small child, preparing her for her appointment with the hidden heart of the cosmos? A sad, whitewashed church in a moat of broken clam shells approached and then departed, filling me with an ache for home.  

I nestled next to Aunt Irene and closed my eyes, lulled by the staccato of tires against mortar joints. Finally, however, a crescendo buffeted with the sharp squawking of sea gulls, hundreds of them. I leapt with excitement, banging my head on the tiny overhead light. We were passing small inlets where sleek, white winged creatures were diving for groceries in slaphappy currents. I inhaled vague, briny aromas and could almost feel the tummy bumps as I scanned the swell of sailboats and dinghies bobbing in the coves.

“Won’t be long now!” everyone shouted excitedly. Fishing wharfs sped by and boats in dry dock, road signs and more billboards of little sunburned girls with puppies pulling at bathing suits. Stalled traffic and beeping car horns made my dad’s neck blush, and like a thermometer, the inflammation rose up into his cheek bones coming to rest amid beads of sweat on his broad forehead. Mom’s pretend smile and her quiet humming did little to ease the tension till we finally crossed over the drawbridge connecting us to Brigantine.  

 

“There it is!” Mom twisted her head around to point to the Atlantic Ocean, but that awesome, magnificent creature had spotted me first, throwing me into some kind of freeze-framed over-drive. Without warning, everything around me stopped as though someone had accidentally hit the planetary pause button. I found myself alone in a place of utter stillness and timelessness. A hazy vault-like separation stood between me and all outside sound as family faded into a misty blur. I was in a wide-eyed trance, staring helplessly,… longingly. The ocean before me was an enormous swelling of ripples and currents, calm yet commanding, breathing me into her, rising and falling, taking me deeper.  My heartbeat and breath became entrained with this enigmatic hump-backed mariner of the deep.

I knew then without knowing, that life was communion. I was given a glimpse of a primordial essence that waits beneath the outer reality of things. The ocean was alive! The whole world was alive and so was I!  It has taken a lifetime to even try to articulate what really happened to me that day. I had slipped through some thin vortex into another dimension, a universe beyond ordinary consciousness. I have no idea how long I drifted in that netherworld of silence where the breath was everything and everything was breath. I sensed that I was probably only one blink away from erasing the entire revelation, but it was Irene who drew me back. With her gentle touch she summoned me to her so Dad could again see out the rear view mirror.  I had returned to “real” time with nobody even noticing that I had left.

That little girl and I still marvel at the ocean’s power on that glorious day. She had allured us like some pied piper, to enter into the realm of the mystic where all we had to do was appreciate our ability to appreciate. I want to believe that there are times when the great unknown speaks to us across time and culture of a longing we will never understand. 


My vision of an alternate reality kindled in me a perpetual gratitude and I find myself smiling now just as the little girl in me smiled that day at Brigantine Beach.  We entered the small community with its corner grocery stores and postcard apothecaries, where people with red faces and Noxema noses shuffled around in sandals and old shorts; where a child from the hills of Western Maryland could dash across a hot, sandy beach and cool her toes, playing keep-away with her new best friend, the Mother-Of-It-All, sharing her secret rendezvous with no one. 



I am in the foreground, with Bill and Mary Lee behind. I'm too busy looking for sea shells to pose.

I am in the foreground, with Bill and Mary Lee behind. I'm too busy looking for sea shells to pose.

That's better.

That's better.

Jody, Bill & Mary Lee Grimm Summer 1949

Jody, Bill & Mary Lee Grimm Summer 1949

John O'Donahue, the great Irish poet, Described nature as an incredibly sophisticated bible. "It's a library of books. The scriptures of nature are immense and profound and there's a faithfulness in nature on the one hand, where it doesn't seem to be disturbed in any way by longing, yet on the other hand, it seems amazingly imbued with primeval desire."

O'Donahue believed that the most profound prayer the human mind can say is when the human body walks out and feels the mountains by the ocean and the forest and enters into the stillness and the solitude that is found there. These kinds of experiences have the power to infuse us with more belonging than any prayer we could ever say with words. 

Jody Walker

A Pug, A Disciple and the Apothecary Night

Anxiety attacks. It steeps slowly, permeating into sinew, joint, bone, soul. Its acidity gnaws away at dignity, self-worth, encoding the DNA with a residue of terror. I know this trembling Picasso misfit. In fact, I am this tidal wave in freeze-frame ready to crash in a thunderous roar, hurling chards of ridicule and intimidation onto myself. My latest analyst, however, wears dog tags and his prescription is so simple it’s profound. His pharmacy is right outside our house. We’re headed there now. “Stick with me, Baby,” he says without speaking then grabs one end of my woolen neck scarf hoping to play tug-of-war. I yank the other end of our hot-pink umbilical and he quickly releases. Toying with me is part of the therapy.

It is our last walk before bedtime. I grab two old hooded sweatshirts from the closet, my hat, coat and gloves, and our “winter-walk” ritual begins. Duke waits so patiently, staring up at me with those deep, dark pug eyes. He’s rooted in smugness, crouched there with his extra folds of fur draped casually around him. He can always be ready in a second’s notice. It must bewilder him to witness layer after layer being wrapped ceremoniously around his client.  He yawns and his soft pink tongue stretches out in an upward spiral, touching his nostrils with a few wet swipes before returning to his mouth. Sniffing the air a few times nonchalantly, black whiskers twitching, he calmly glances my way again with a fierce grace both stoic and firm.


We are determined to challenge the cold jolt of Nordic air that awaits us just beyond the foyer. I stuff my biodegradable doggie bag into my coat pocket, push open the front door with a body-slam and we’re off! Our pace quickens rapidly, and my attention is drawn to Duke’s cute little butt, swaying rhythmically like some muscular metronome. As he struts exuberantly from pole to post to hydrant, I fall in behind him, still chuckling as we stray from the glow of a near-by streetlamp and surrender ourselves completely to the Night.

That’s when it happens! That’s when it always happens. The apothecary potion kicks in, and while Duke immerses himself into the sweet canine scents calling out beneath him, I become overwhelmed by a totally different crescendo of cravings. As always on these nights, I gaze upward, and am amazed to find myself breaking free from the chains of linear time. Conventional perception shifts and the truth that beckons below the surface of things slips through, exposing itself as a holy benediction within the One True Cathedral. I am amazed at the stark contrasts offered up by Night who seems perfectly content to allow the stars to take top billing. Those primordial flames glisten and gladden in their familiar, dependable patterns, floating peacefully on the still, black ocean. My entire body smiles as though I, too, am floating on this ethereal canvas, reaching far beyond the cosmos toward the eternal present, the cradle of birth and death. These flickering beacons have performed their ancestral display since time immemorial (and yet we sit inside and watch a flickering, insular tube that throbs its insults and numbs us to the bones). 

If it weren’t for Duke, I’d probably be inside too and so I sing now in my off-keyed voice and my racing heart naturally slows. Our walking becomes a millennial dance. A few more steps and we’re utterly lost within the universe, where nothing’s ever lost. Do the weeping, emaciated Children of War see these stars too? Do the generals? We’re all here together on this orbital trajectory, so small yet so immense. I breathe in the crisp, clean air, hoping a child across the sea in a poisonous place will breathe with me. 

As my pug and I continue around the block we pass under some tall pines that seem to be conversing with a galaxy far, far away.  I sense a bit of laughter and teasing banter, yet am deaf to any spoken word. Some near-by arching maples nod in understanding. And though they must be chilled to the bone, their leafless limbs lace the panorama with delicate black tatting, adding a multidimensional essence to the dialogue. Why is their subliminal trust felt so deeply?  I dissolve into the calm, reassuring sea with its flotilla of lanterns and ornamental braiding, hoping that someday, my light, too, may shine. 

I feel a healing gratitude wash over me, and this time when I inhale, my lungs and heart both open to this pulsing performance. It is as though from this unified field of vision, thoughts and emotions emerge and then become the molecules of my body and only then am I able to perceive. Can my intentions affect the world? Can they somehow change the course of human events?

Abruptly, my brawny bundle of “fur on a leash” (my professor of unconditional Love) lurches toward a rabbit and growls at a garbage can, forcing my attention to the ground on which we stand. No minor chord requiem for us! We are part of that “something mysterious”, something far greater than ego, and our walk has taught me this: life isn’t meant to be perfect. Life is meant to be cherished. The Universe doesn’t judge nor does it condemn. It doesn’t seek vengeance and is never angry. It celebrates!  I laugh at that thought in the late night cold, and allow the mystery to lead us home.

(Prescription: Revel in the dark night at least once before bedtime. No expiration. Signed with a paw print)

Jody Walker