Half-Mast

May 25, 2022

Our flag slides down the silver pole
once again
stopping halfway
again
its trajectory now rooted in its memory.
This time it pauses and wavers
in remembrance of nineteen children
two school teachers
trapped and murdered in a classroom,
each crumbling one after another
onto the blood-stained floor.
I see their photos, smile after smile
on brown faces, white faces,
hopeful faces,
one child wears a t-shirt
“Difference maker” emblazoned
in white.
Gone, they are gone,
sacrificial lambs
placed upon the great red brass altar
of the American Gun,
copper, tin, and zinc bow down,
and all the priests
in royal garb and meaningless chant
surround it with their “rights”
and their endless hungry fear.
I go outside where my summer plants
have begun to bloom, and I prune them,
setting each loose blossom
to the wind
in prayer for children who will not
race in the sun.

© Rosemary McMahan

A Way to Be: Bearing Witness

March 11, 2022

The Table

You know these voices,
if you have ears to hear.
They are legion, whispering
(or shouting) within you
desperate to be noticed,
coming from all corners
of your life, east and west,
north and south, from infancy,
to old age, and all the seasons
in between,
soloists tugging at
your sleeve for attention.
You wonder why they bother
you and what they want
while you try to swat at them
like so many buzzing gnats
and go your unlived way.
It is, after all, so much easier
pretending to be deaf, instead
of inviting them in for tea,
laying your table
with a freshly pressed cloth,
fetching the fine china cups,
the ones you keep in the glass-
fronted cabinet,
or even the chipped mug,
brewing the tea and baking
the cookies. But if you did
greet them as guests,
what would you say to each
voice, each self, that approaches
your table with caution
and desire? Maybe your only
role as host is to be silent,
do nothing but pour the tea,
pass the cookies, listen
to their stories unfolding
like morning glories,
exchanging compassion
for the gift they bring,
the wisdom of your own
unique life.

© Rosemary McMahan

You may be familiar with this story:  An old Cherokee Indian chief was teaching his grandson about life.  “A fight is going on inside me,” he told the young boy, “a fight between two wolves.  The Dark one is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The Light Wolf is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you and inside of every other person on the face of this earth.”  The grandson pondered this for a moment and then asked, “Grandfather, which wolf will win?”  The old man simply said, “The one you feed.”

During this season of Lent, as I consider my own choices, my own life, I am looking beyond my spiritual traditions and exploring the three tenets of Zen Peacemaking as a way of being in this often turbulent and always changing world.  The poem and this story are both examples of the power of the second Zen tenet:  bearing witness.  (See the previous blog for the first tenet, “Not Knowing”  https://spirit-reflections.org/2022/03/07/a-way-to-be-not-knowing/). When we bear witness, we acknowledge all the different feelings, or parts of ourselves, that arise at any given moment, whether it be full of joy or suffering, or somewhere in between.  We wake up to the current situation and give attention to whatever feelings, thoughts, or judgments arise, without condemning or stuffing any of them, but instead deciding which one we will attend to, or, as the Cherokee grandfather says, “feed.”  What comes out of our mouths, as Christ said, reveals what is truly in our hearts (Matthew 15:18).

“When you bear witness you open to the uniqueness of whatever is arising and meet it just as it is. When combined with not-knowing, bearing witness can strengthen your capacity for spaciousness, thus enabling you to be present to the very things that make you feel as if you have lost your center.”

As the first tenet confirms, we cannot know for certain what will happen next, not even in the next minute of our lives.  (The trout lily, pictured above, did not know yesterday that today it would be covered in a late snow.) But we do know that something will happen and whatever that something is, it may open a wide range of feelings, attitudes, opinions, and biases.  Bearing witness asks that we hear all those voices and respect them for whatever wisdom or lessons they may bring, and then we decide which one we will feed.

“Bearing witness can allow you to eventually come to terms with the most difficult life circumstances. The practice is always available to you regardless of the time, place, situation, or people involved. There is nothing that you cannot bear witness to, from dusting the lint off your sweater to living in a pit for two years.” 

With the possibility of a growing war, and in the midst of so much division, to live from the center of our lives, to live in balance, to be able to respond to these present times instead of react, to choose what brings Light instead of Darkness, may be the single most important gift we can give to our world. 

Walking with you ~ Rosemary

Quoted material from Zen Peacemakers:  https://zenpeacemakers.org/the-three-tenets/.

A Way to Be:  Not Knowing

March 7, 2022

I won’t speak for you, but I want to know how the war in Ukraine is going to end.  I want to know now.  I want to know if we are through with the crisis of Covid-19 or if another variant will emerge this spring or summer or fall with all its turmoil and grief.  I want to know now.  I want to know if I will still be alive tonight as I begin to think about our evening meal, and I want to know now.  Our desire for certainty masks our false sense of control because the truth is that we cannot know what is going to happen next.  We may predict, but we cannot know.

In the Not Knowing

It is a bright March afternoon
foreshadowing the spring to come
but not yet.
Forecasters predict possible
tornadic activity, falling temperatures
for tomorrow.

At this present time, with the presence of war, life feels very unstable, but life has always been unstable.  This reality is not something any of us wants to easily admit.  We also don’t want to accept that our biases, our convictions, our perceptions that may have influenced us since our births are not the only “true” ones and that our personal biases, convictions, and perceptions are not what make the world go round. 

I barely catch a glimpse of them
as I drive by. The red blanket
spread on the green lawn
catches my eye, the young woman
sitting there, head tilted back
in laughter, dark hair spilling
down her yellow sweater.

Accepting our not knowing, then, becomes a spiritual practice and a way of staying grounded in the flux of our ever-changing, unpredictable world and lives.  In the Zen tradition, not knowing involves letting go of our rigid perceptions about ourselves, others, and the world, releasing all our “isms”: racism, sexism, classism, etc.  It is a form of compassion that involves meeting life without any preconceived ideas, interpretations, or judgments. In the Christian tradition, not knowing is similar to the practice of Centering Prayer where we sit in silence, empty ourselves of ourselves, and allow the Spirit to pray and work within us, without our interference.  Not knowing can be expressed in many forms of mindfulness, meditation, and other types of contemplative prayer and practice that guide us to a place of stillness ( where “I AM” dwells) and that help us to stay in the present moment, where Truth resides.  Not knowing does not lead to indifference, indecision, inaction or complacency but instead helps us to become more aware of what we choose to let in and more open to what we might have previously excluded.

A jean-clad man, standing on the edge
of the blanket, smiles, holds
a basket while a chestnut-colored
Lab lounges at the woman’s feet,
the trio complete.

In this Lenten Season, as a way of being, the practice of not knowing, of giving up any self-righteousness, rigidity, and control resonates with me.  It is also a way to make real the peace that the Christ promised, a peace that is “not as the world gives . . . so do not let your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:26–27).

This moment is all they know
all they need to know-
a front yard picnic
on a bright March day-
none of us knowing what tomorrow
will bring.

© Rosemary McMahan

Image credit: Pixabay

Thin Place

Lake Guntersville

February 9, 2022

In Celtic Spirituality, there is an understanding that certain places become the meeting ground between heaven and earth, the “holy ground” of Moses before the burning bush.  Such spaces are called “thin places” because the division between the holy and the ordinary disappears and the time spent there usually is fleeting.  In a thin place, all of our senses are fully awake and we are aware of that present moment only.  Sunrises and sunsets, forests and mountain tops, oceans and streams are often places that become “thin” if our eyes and ears and hearts are open.  As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “Earth’s crammed with heaven.” In these holy moments, we recognize that we have received a gift of presence from Divine Love.  May we practice opening our eyes and our hearts in a world that often trembles. Blessings ~ Rosemary

Thin Place

A bald eagle lifts from her nest to roost on a pine bough
against a cerulean sky before thrusting herself forward
over the wide expanse of lake,
while photographers turn their massive lenses
skyward, laughing and pointing in flannelled
camaraderie. A pair of brown-haired children,
coats off and sailing like kites in their hands,
race along the path past them,
their bemused mother smiling as she struggles
to keep up. Behind, a young flower-laden
couple pose with hope-filled eyes while a friend
snaps pictures of a moment never to be reclaimed
and beyond, a seasoned man and woman perch
on a bare rock, tossing bread from a wrapper
to two fat geese waddling after each crumb.
Out on the water, weightless as dandelion puffs,
five white pelicans with long yellow beaks
drift on the current of a jon boat
where a lone fisherman stands erect,
silhouetted in black by the clear afternoon
sun, his line as straight and steady
as he is. In this simple moment,
like transient etchings, heaven dissolves
into the earth, earth evaporates
into the heavens,
past and future are shut out
while all creation does what it was created
to do, and I remove my shoes
to stand on holy ground.

©  Rosemary McMahan

The Return Trip

February 2, 2022

Counting Coats

If you have two coats, give one to someone who doesn’t have any.””  Luke 3:11

I consider the number of coats
I own. More than two.
Seven? Eight? Ten?
Not all coats, of course.
Some are jackets
a pink fleece
a purple raincoat.
In the checkout lane
the woman in a wind-thin
blue sweater
fumbles with food stamps
to pay for three packages
of cheap hot dogs,
a dollar short.
I turn to search
for a faster aisle
then stop and notice
the loaf of fresh bread
a bottle of good wine
that I am holding.
I pay for her hot dogs.
She turns her plain face
to me and blesses me–
not just me
but also my family
those I love.
When she leaves,
the clerk says
I’ve done something
wonderful.
I am grateful
no one is behind
me to hear her.
I blush, hurry,
leave
with a loaf of fresh bread
a bottle of good wine
and a blessing
held in the hollows
of my heart.

© Rosemary McMahan

Ever forgotten something at the grocery store, something that couldn’t wait, and so you had to circle back and make a second trip?  I found myself in that annoying situation a couple of weeks ago, grumbling to myself about the inconvenience and waste of time as I headed back.  As it turns out, though, I was meant to make this second trip.

I quickly nabbed the forgotten item, along with a bottle of wine (my condolence prize) and got in the checkout aisle.  In front of me, a woman was fumbling in her purse, trying to come up with another dollar to pay for three packages of no-brand hot dogs.  The charge was $6, and she was short the amount.  I noticed the aisle next to me was empty, and I almost moved there, when I looked at my own purchase—a loaf of freshly baked sourdough bread and a good bottle of Chardonnay.  The woman in front of me was now explaining that since it was near the end of the month, she was short on food stamps and was trying to make them stretch over the next couple of days, counting on cheap hot dogs to feed her and perhaps others.  She was about to settle on two packs when I offered to pay for all three.  She gratefully accepted.

I don’t tell this story to brag.  Six dollars is not much to me.  I am no hero.  I tell this story because this woman then turned and blessed me.  She offered a blessing for me and for those I love, for health and well-being, when she obviously needed that blessing, herself.  After she left, as I paid for my own items, the clerk told me I had done a wonderful thing.  No, I hadn’t.  I had done a human thing.

Whether you believe in God, Destiny, Fate, Karma, whatever, I believe I was sent back to that store to receive this woman’s blessing—not a blessing, be clear, that I deserved—but a gift of grace.  I think of her from time to time for she has become a kind of role model of humility and graciousness for me, and I whisper the blessing back to her.

Blessings to each of you, wherever you find yourselves.  ~ Rosemary

Photo credit: Pixabay

Wood Walking

Jan. 28, 2022

As the Covid viruses rage and mutate while people the world over tire of wearing masks, rebel against distancing, and refuse to concern themselves with others’ safety, I find myself dismayed by humanity’s loss of the Golden Rule, and I head to the woods.  I am not the first to do so “when the world is too much with us,” as William Wordsworth phrased it, so I take my path following the wisdom of others throughout the ages who sought Nature in times of turmoil. The mystery of the woods reminds me that God the Creator is still in control, that beauty and love always win the day.

Winter, as I learned last year during Covid, is a unique time to walk the woods.  With the leaves gone, each tree becomes vulnerable, exposing its true form in all its vastly odd shapes.  Nothing is growing where just short months before there was life, and barren rock formations rise up sharply against an empty space.  The birds are quiet; nothing skitters but a lone chipmunk or grey squirrel.  The wind whispers itself cold on my face.  Yet here I find delight.  I find peace.  Here I spot the Creator’s whimsy, the Creator’s smile, the chuckle and affirmation, in the midst of a trembling world.  Our souls were made for beauty; the Creator knows this, and in the woods, obliges.

Blessings to you ~ Rosemary

Wood Walking

The end of January, the weight
of pandemic and politics as heavy
as blizzard snow, I take to the woods,
down an empty path
made by sojourners before me.
The sky, a swath of painted winter blue,
a hard and vivid hue, is canvas to limb
after charcoal limb reaching upwards,
each turn of branch, each sliver of twig,
an intimate etching. A sparse yet green
Resurrection Fern holds tight
in mid-January in a wash
of pale winter sun while
a slender tree stands bare except
for a smattering of Turkey Tail fungi,
fringed in blue and gray, forming
a face on the rutted bark:
two eyes with brows, a nose,
a mouth. I nod and say “hello”
in passing.
Rounding the corner, I catch sight
of a kissing tree, or so I name it,
where a canker has formed and is
pressed hard against a lichen-
mottled limestone outcrop
in a touch of lips. I turn away
and walk, delighted by icy clusters of
long dagger-like icicles clinging
to the edge of a leaf-littered
ledge in 50-degree weather.
How can this be? A snake-green vine
encircles a tree and climbs upward
in embrace, too realistic to touch.
I step over slender roots scattered
upon the way like skeleton bones,
mindful not to break one. As evening falls,
multitudes of bare branches
in naked vulnerability
shift and weave themselves
into intricate netting that traps
the day’s last pink rays,
while God laughs in the garden
of delight.

© Rosemary McMahan

If I Could Do it Over

January 13, 2022

Years ago, in another life, I met Amy Tunick at the beginning of my freshman year in college.  In those brief nine months, the two of us, so very different (I, then, a Roman Catholic from a small town who wanted to be a writer; she, a secular Jew from Miami who wanted to be an actor) bonded in such a way that when we chose different directions after that year, we stayed in touch over the next fifteen. The majority of the time, Amy initiated the contact, perhaps because she was single and I quickly became a young mother, or because she was the better friend.

Ours was that kind of relationship where time stopped and we were back at school, Freshmen girls trying to find our way, never missing a beat.  Amy, the extrovert, always had an outrageous story to tell yet was fascinated in hearing about what I considered my mundane life.  Amy, full of questions, full of curiosity, full of joy.  She never did become the actor she hoped for, though she was proud that hers was the voice of one of the Care Bears.

In her 40’s, Amy was diagnosed to the surprise and horror of all with pancreatic cancer.  Her doctor gave her six months to live.  Because she was Amy, she lived 31 more. She wrote a book during this time, pictured above, chronicling her illness and treatments with joy and positivity.  Here is what she wrote about friends:

“If you have a special friend or two that you know will be there for you during difficult times, someone who won’t run away or abandon you, consider yourself very lucky.  In order to have a friend, you have to be one.  Nurture and cherish your friendships.  Feed them so they can grow and blossom.  Friendship is a gift.”

Yes, friendship is a gift.  I was given a very special gift in Amy, and I took it for granted.  I share this blog because I regret with all my heart that my “busy” life, pre-occupations, and physical distance between us kept me from being there for her in her hardest transitions.  I am forever thankful that she had friends and family who did show up for her.  Today would have been Amy’s 63rd birthday.  Each birthday that has passed since Amy died at 47, I have felt my regret and offered it to her.  Knowing Amy, she has gathered those regrets to her and turned them into an armful of roses.

Be a friend to your friends. ~ Rosemary

If I Could Do It Over

In memory of Amy Turner Tunick

If I could do it over,

I would be a better friend

to you who called with news:

cancer of the pancreas. 

At 45.

Women weren’t supposed to get it.

I sympathized.  Worried.  Prayed.

But you were there  and   I was here.

I would call more often,

if I could do it over,

send more Hallmarks, a Care Bear,

ox-eye daisies.  Two Capricorns,

our favorite month was January

when the long-distance between us

dissolved in girlish conversation.

You, forever single and wandering,

me, forever married and rooted,

we admired the fabled grass

on the other side

of each other’s fences.

I’d paint a verbal picture of you

for all the world to hear,

if I could do it over,

Amy with your blonde-streaked wigs

and Serenity Prayer

Amy with your vegan lifestyle and

your fuchsia scarves,

Amy with your ebony and white

toy poodles.

I would pay mind to the passing months,

flying by like geese in formation,

constant and ordained,

if I could do it over        and

I wouldn’t bury myself in mid-life

passages, turning inward, ignoring the urging

of my heart that never forgot you.

I wouldn’t receive the news from your mother

in a letter    because I would know

I would know that in the final months

the tumor grew,

if I could do it over,

would know that your brave fight and bright Spirit

had no choice but to surrender.

I would be with you at your bedside,

with your family, dear friends, and new beau.

I would tell an old story, hold your slender hand,

make you laugh

one more time

as you journeyed home

through this universe

that you believed

“is unfolding as it should.”

© Rosemary McMahan