Bless You and Amen

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The view of the dome of Westminster Church Minneapolis from where my Mom and I always sat together

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.

Martin Luther

Grandeur

by T. A. Fry 

Beneath the vast white dome of Westminster,
While bathed in the blue light of Christ the King.
There awaits a hoard of regal treasure
For my beloved when the choir sings.
It’s not the crown jewels set within the Rose
or music’s grandeur from the massive organ.
Nor found in prayers the clergy propose
Should you attend on a Sunday morn’in.
I’ve magically endowed a gold home-fort
to dwell in the hearts of those I love.
For when you need a touch of comfort,
“Ere I’m silent in the loft above.
Shushhhh…. listen, to all this morning’s hymns.
They’re singing; “I love you. Bless you and amen.”

November 2015


I wrote recently about my muse, but I should distinguish between when the muse visits and a writing prompt.   One of the reasons I attend church at Westminster is that often I come away from the service with a writing prompt; something said during the service gives me an idea for a poem.  Sometimes it is a singular word that will set the creative process in motion, sometimes it is an entire line of poetry, and I’ll jot it down in the margin of my bulletin.

I’m not sure who said it first, but one of my favorite sayings about the experience of attending Westminster is “bring your brain to church.” For me that means being fully present and open to ideas.  When my muse visits, the ideas are fully formed and my fingers are propelled as if by an unseen force writing the poem for me.  Oh Darkest Night was written by my Muse.  Grandeur was written by me based on one line that formed in my head during a service, “Beneath the vast white dome of Westminster.” Then it was a matter of sitting down and figuring out the rest.

The Sunday I wrote Grandeur, in the fall before my Mother passed, Liz gave me a history lesson on the gorgeous windows called Christ the King and the Tiffany styled window called the Rose.   The Rose stylistically does not fit with the rest of the windows in the main sanctuary and I had asked Liz about it.  She gave me a 15 minute history lesson about Westminster. The original church was built several blocks north, and was largely destroyed in a fire. The patrons of this church were several of the families from the mill district and the retail barons that the wealth of the milling district in Minneapolis fostered.  One of those families, who founded Daytons department stores, which went on to become Target Corporation, were generous in their contributions to the design and construction of the current building in 1898.  The Rose window was a gift from one of the families. and was built by a company separate from the rest of the windows in the sanctuary.

The design of the church was radical at the time it was built, with its oval shaped sanctuary and the choir and organ situated in the front behind the pulpit.  It moved away from the traditional long narrow design of most churches and made a statement about inclusiveness. The Westminster of today is a far more liberal, progressive congregation than its past. Liz had a hand in moving Westminster on its journey of inclusion and equality and equity. Liz paved a path in the broader Presbyterian church to break down barriers of gender inequality, some overt, some subtle, some just bald headed stupid tradition, that prevented woman from certain roles in the church. Liz and many other women through their intelligent example and wise patience and brave voices have readied Westminster to eventually break through the glass ceiling for its first female lead pastor in the near future.

Grandeur came about on that Sunday afternoon.   I went home that November day and it did not take long to come up with a first draft and within a couple of days the final version took shape.  It was a gift to my Mother and in a way Liz, and I read it to them the following Sunday after the service.  It is a postcard of those many Sundays that I wanted to hold on to, that feeling of togetherness, knowing I would be able to tap into those memories, those feelings when my Mother and Liz would no longer be by my side in our spot in the back of the church where there was a cut out that accommodated Liz’s wheel chair.

Westminster is a sacred place for me.  I can feel my Mother’s presence some Sundays seated in the pew.   I can feel her wisdom and kindness and generous spirit encouraging me onward, to be my better self, knowing that love she had/has for me continues onward, unabated.

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Westminster Church in Minneapolis with the south facing Christ The King window and the west facing towards the street Rose window visible in this picture.
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Christ the King
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The Rose
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The view of the front of the  sanctuary from our regular spot.

 

 

 

Comfort, Console and Bless and Safely Bring

 

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Reverend Elizabeth Heller (1926 – 2019)

Better to light one candle, than to curse the darkness.

Reverend Elizabeth Heller

Godspeed

by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 – 1892)

Outbound, your bark awaits you. Were I one
Whose prayer availeth much, my wish should be
Your favoring trad-wind and consenting sea.
By sail or steed was never love outrun,
And, here or there, love follows her in whom
All graces and sweet charities unite,
he old Greek beauty set in holier light;
And her for whom New England’s byways bloom,
Who walks among us welcome as the Spring,
Calling up blossoms where her light feet stray.
God keep you both, make beautiful your way,
Comfort, console, and bless; and safely bring,
Ere yet I make upon a vaster sea
The unreturning voyage, my friends to me.


When I originally scheduled this post, my friend Liz Heller was still patiently waiting for death to take her on the unreturning journey.  But I edited the original, as blessed comfort finally arrived and Liz, cradled in her faith, surrounded by love of family and friends, passed in the early evening of July 27, 2019.

My friendship with Liz goes back to 1979, when my Mother and I worked for three summers at a Presbyterian Church Camp called Clearwater Forest.  Those were special summers, brilliant in my memory.  Liz would attend several weeks each summer, once during creative arts week and generally with a youth group or weekend programming as well. She and my Mother became good friends  and that friendship spilled over to me.

When it came time to get married there was no hesitation on where that service would be or who would perform the ceremony; Liz Heller at Westminster Church in Minneapolis in their chapel. My wife and I attended several marriage counseling sessions with Liz, despite having lived together for almost 8 years, and Liz sense of humor and wisdom left a lasting impression. Our friendship would re-engage 20 years later when my Mother returned to Minneapolis for the final four years of her life and she and I and Liz, along with several other friends, would sit together each week at Westminster. The best part of the service being the lively conversation following, catching up and asking each other questions.

Liz lit a lot of candles in and for people over the years.  She certainly lit one in me as I began my journey into poetry.  I can remember reciting Oh Darkest Night the week I wrote it and after that she would ask me, “have you written anything this week?” and if the answer was yes, ask me to read it to her.  Liz often gave me feedback on my writing, sharing the connections my poetry created in her mind.  She shared deep and illuminating insights that challenged me to go back and edit drafts, her nudging my writing in thoughtful ways.

My Mother and I were helping Liz transition from her long time condo near Westminster church in Minneapolis to an assisted living facility the day before my Mother died. Our role in the process relatively small, packing and shipping boxes, sorting through files under Liz watchful gaze and helping get things to their new rightful home.  I went to visit Liz days after my Mother died and we shared tears, memories and our grief.

Although Liz could no longer attend worship services on a regular basis the past 3 years, I kept in touch by going to visit.  I would bring coffee and poetry.  I always brought two or three poems by other authors and one or two of my own.  We would read them and talk about them and usually it would spark a memory and it would launch Liz into a wonderful story from her amazing life.  I remember when I read a Maya Angelou poem once and Liz told me the story of when she met Maya, for a Westminster Town Hall Forum, and Liz had brought her calla lilies from her garden and the two of them had the most wonderful conversation.

Liz is one of four people I gave a copy of a very rough draft of my first chap book and as further revisions evolved over the past 3 years, I always would share the most recent version.  I have in the past three weeks, added the final two poems to the chap book, both based on experiences with Liz in her final spring.  I know never to say that something is final with my writing, because I am endlessly revising, but two weeks ago when I visited Liz, and she was asleep and unresponsive, I read her the entire Canticle from start to finish and it felt complete, it felt like it says what I want it to say.  Liz’s passing may crystallize in my mind that this project is finally finished and its time to stop writing and time to figure out what I might do with it.

Liz’s sharp mind, strong faith, curiosity and gentle humor were present right up to the end, though her body had long since failed her, confined to a wheel chair and reliant on others, her twinkle in her eye never dimmed, nor her vital gratitude. Liz has been my primary spiritual leader for a long time, an inspiration on how to live a good life and a generous friend.  Fortunately, her friendship has expanded my circle so that her flame burns brightly in others, a light that will continue to shine in the darkness.

Thank you Liz for a sharing a life well lived.  Thank you for being my friend, critic, mentor and fellow story teller.   I will keep your memory alive, your memory a blessing in my life.  I will  miss you.


Praise for Faith

by William Cowper (1731 – 1800)

Of all the gifts Thine hand bestows,
Thou Giver of all good!
Not heaven itself a richer knows
Than my Redeemer’s blood.

Faith too, the blood-receiving grace,
From the same hand we gain;
Else, sweetly as it suits our case,
That gift had been in vain.

Till Thou Thy teaching power apply,
Our hearts refuse to see,
And weak, as a distemper’d eye,
Shut out the view of Thee.

Blind to the merits of Thy Son,
What misery we endure!
Yet fly that Hand from which alone
We could expect a cure.

We praise Thee, and would praise Thee more,
To Thee our all we owe:
The precious Saviour, and the power
That makes Him precious too.

 

And I Took Her Hand

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Erato Muse of Poetry

When I Met My Muse

by William Stafford

I glanced at her and took my glasses
off–they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. “I am your own
way of looking at things,” she said. “When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand.


Do you have a muse?  An unseen force that stirs your creativity, guides your voice, puts words on the page, or paint on a canvas with a clarity that goes beyond your conscious mind?   I have written about my muse before, it is a force that is real and can leave me awestruck at times.  Part of what makes it special is my muse visits infrequently.  Most of the time I am left to my own devices and writing is plain hard work.

What’s the most unusual thing your muse has ever told you?  What is the most unusual thing you have ever told your muse? Is your muse male, female, non-binary, non-human? How often does your muse visit?  What will you say next time it does?


Sonnet 38

by William Shakespeare

How can my muse want subject to invent,
While thou dost breathe, that pour’st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
O! give thy self the thanks, if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight;
For who’s so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thy self dost give invention light?
Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate;
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.
If my slight muse do please these curious days,
The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.

Giving It Verbal Hell

Dublin Bar

300 – The Dream Songs
Henry Comforted

by John Berryman

Your first day in Dublin is always your worst
& today is better, as when thirty years ago
I recovered my spirits at once.
Unshaven, tieless, with the most expensive drink in the room,
I have recovered a little.  The room is filling
with Irish types – one gorgeous girl,

pipe-men, cigarette-men, a portentous black beard,
& the accents are flying: the all-service man
is a giant with a shock of red hair & and easy air.
Henry is feeling better,
owing to three gin-&-vermouths.
He is seeking where to live & pursue his work.

The Irish are not neat, except in the Book of Kells,
The skirts are as short here as in Minnesota.
What the services need
is a teen-age H-bomb: fashions their elders can follow,
His shoes are monumental, Egyptian, ay
the two at me left are giving it verbal hell.


I wonder what Berryman and Dowden would have ordered in a Dublin bar together if time travel made that meeting possible?   Guinness? Irish whisky?  Or hard cider?   Let’s make it a double and sit down for a while, the conversation around poetry is going to run well into the night.

From their poetry I would deduce that both Berryman and Dowden had the gift for listening, though Berryman toiled with much greater freedom in how to set his fellow man’s tongue upon the page.  Greater freedom was not enough to save Berryman, or maybe I miss the point of his demise, being too judgmental. Maybe freedom is precisely what he achieved.

Today’s post is number 300 for Fourteenlines.  The journey continues to be entertaining and challenging, at least for me.  I sometimes worry that my format might not stand up to the test of 1,000 posts, becoming mundane and formulaic in the eyes of readers other than myself. I hope I deliver a surprise now and again in both the varied authors poetry that I share and in a couple of lines in my commentary.  I appreciate the people from all over the world that touch base with Fourteenlines, either as a regular visitor or as a one time interaction, looking for the exact poem to fill up their cup.  Remember, I welcome feedback, take requests and am open to guest bloggers. Be well, write without judgement of yourself and breathe.


Darwinism in Morals

Edward Dowden (1843-1913)

High instincts, dim perversions, sacred fears,
–Whence issuing? Are they but the brain’s amassed
Tradition, shapings of a barbarous past,
Remoulded ever by the younger years,
Mixed with fresh clay, and kneaded with new tears?
No more? The dead chief’s ghost a shadow cast
Across the roving clan, and thence at last
Comes God, who in the soul His law uprears?
Is this the whole? Has not the Future powers
To match the Past,–attractions, pulsings, tides,
And voices for purged ears? Is all our light
The glow of ancient sunsets and lost hours?
Advance no banners up heaven’s eastern sides?
Trembles the margin with no portent bright?

A Life Reprehensibly Perfect

Waving Goodbye

How lucky I am to have something that saying good-bye is so hard.

A. A. Milne

Waving Good-Bye

by Gerald Stern

I wanted to know what it was like before we
had voices and before we had bare fingers and before we
had minds to move us through our actions
and tears to help us over our feelings,
so I drove my daughter through the snow to meet her friend
and filled her car with suitcases and hugged her
as an animal would, pressing my forehead against her,
walking in circles, moaning, touching her cheek,
and turned my head after them as an animal would,
watching helplessly as they drove over the ruts,
her smiling face and her small hand just visible
over the giant pillows and coat hangers
as they made their turn into the empty highway.


Departures and arrivals, leaving and returning home, this is the way of summer vacations and more metaphysical deliberations on the meaning of “home.” I have wished loved ones off this past week and depart myself on multiple journeys over the course of the next few. But it is a much more interesting and ominous departure I am contemplating of late, a departure from “things.”  It is cliche to talk about how the things we possess come in time to possess us, but why else do we pay such elaborate mortgages and taxes to afford houses or condos large enough to store all the things a middle aged person accumulates? I have had a rule for the past year; for everything that is brought in something has to depart.  It works to a point but inevitably the scale tips towards more and never toward less.  It takes something radical to actually move the needle in the direction of fewer things.

 My possessions consist mostly of clothing, books, music and art these days. None of it expensive or elaborate.  None of the categories are large enough to be called a collection, and yet it is much to large to be easily relocated. So who owns whom?  I spend little time in the condo in which they are housed, and yet I pay the bills each month so that my pictures can hang on the wall, and my clothes can hang in the closet in relative prosperity.  Its a bit absurd if I think about it clearly, and yet it is comforting in an odd way to know where things are.   So who or what owns what or whom?   I’ll continue to pretend I am the one in control, at least I know I am the one paying the bills, but I would like to see my art be a little more grateful for its wall space, lest I decide to take the plunge and box it all up for storage and stop paying their “gallery” rent unless they are going to contribute more to my sense of home, and less to my sense of obligation.


 

Poetry of Departures

Philip Larkin

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.

And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And having to be there:
I detest my room,
It’s specially-chosen junk,
The good books, the good bed,
And my life, in perfect order:
So to hear it said

He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or Take that you bastard;
Surely I can, if he did?
And that helps me to stay
Sober and industrious.
But I’d go today,

Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo’c’sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren’t so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life
Reprehensibly perfect.

The World’s True Lover

Malcolm Guite
Malcolm Guite

“Some things are too great to come at directly. Just as we may weave back and forth as we climb a hill, and appear to be going round in circles, yet all the while are coming closer to the summit, so in our religious and spiritual life things may seem circuitous; we may think we have come back to the same spot, but always, if we press on, it is a little higher, a little closer to the truth.”

Malcolm Guite

The Anointing At Bethany

by Malcolm Guite

Come close with Mary, Martha , Lazarus
So close the candles stir with their soft breath
And kindle heart and soul to flame within us
Lit by these mysteries of life and death.
For beauty now begins the final movement
In quietness and intimate encounter
The alabaster jar of precious ointment
Is broken open for the world’s true lover,

The whole room richly fills to feast the senses
With all the yearning such a fragrance brings,
The heart is mourning but the spirit dances,
Here at the very centre of all things,
Here at the meeting place of love and loss
We all foresee, and see beyond the cross.

 

A friend asked me recently, “Do any of us really see what is going on in another person’s life?” It was in reference to an unimaginable tragedy, the death of a beloved spouse. My answer was yes we do.  Its what death brings, a spotlight into the reality of our friends and families lives.  There’s no hiding in death for the grieving. Grief is a public, communal act.  An act of giving to each other the gift of remembrance, support, and sharing of sadness.  But that spotlight doesn’t last very long before the community moves on, because it must move on, beyond the place of just love and loss, and back to the place of love and life, to see beyond the cross.

Malcolm Guite is one of those big minds whose energy comes through his poetry, his oratory, his intention.   He is a fellow lover of sonnets.   The video below is an example of his clever wisdom and a good reminder on the power of words.

Cre_M_ation

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Mary Fry (1932 – 2016)

Cre_M_ation

By T. A. Fry

What purpose fastidious praise? I will not drink with the Puritans,
whose thin words wilt from prinked lips.   The well intentioned herd
who mouth in sanitized churches and mortuaries; “I’m sorry for your loss.”

I’ll belch and stink my grief while screaming celestial praises
with only gratitude for her life. Look beyond the breasts of the skin
that we are borrowing to find her braided love cross death’s divide.

She did not pawn her time on earth!  She owned the sacrifice
of the Tortoise tending its leafy gardens, the devotion
of the Sequoia sipping the clouds communion chalice.

Let me smell the rot of her death. Do not perfume and primp this carcass
with altruistic incense which scrubs dead air and gives no satisfaction.
True celebrants orient to suit their phrase through cajoles fraught with
Heaven’s dare and inhale the halitosis of her death’s joyful laugh.

Convene your priestly council if you must for the sake of propriety.
But offer me the seared flesh of the sweated beast who dances her jubilas. Bring me a goblet of its blood wine for her toasts.

I’ll stand with the pure diviners of harmony and sing.
Mourner’s who arise with passion fire to fuel her cremation.  
Are we sick to produce so hot a flame? No….  It’s just our love of her.

Her trunk was empty, unpacked, devoured of its essence
by the completeness of her life. In our love inferno 
her rind burned quickly, with little sputtering.


Today is the third anniversary of my Mother’s death.  She was 83 when she passed.  She experienced the kind of gentle and sudden death that I think we all dream of having. She and I had gone to church in the morning, she came home and gardened in the afternoon.  My sister was visiting from California and had brought a life-long friend that lives in my Mom’s neighborhood and the three of them were visiting before going out for a bite to eat.  They were getting ready to go and my Mom said, “wait, I have one more thing to tell you.” and then she started the next sentence, slurred a couple of words, slowly slid off her chair to the floor and died.

Grieving the death of the those closest to us is an ongoing and unfinished process.  It washes over in phases.  I woke up and wrote this poem five days after she died, on the day she was cremated. I have written other poems in that style, but none since her death.  This poem expresses an unexpected anger, sadness as well as joy, that arose from the repetition in the days following, having called all the family and her friends, and hearing over and over, “I’m sorry for your loss.”   At the time all I felt was gratitude for having been so fortunate to have been her son.  I still feel the same.

Thank you Mom for living an amazing life.  We miss you.