All blog posts must be in this category.

Twenty-five years ago I was working as a nationally certified hospital chaplain. The work I treasured most was time I spent with dying people, and I wanted to apply for a regional chaplaincy position with Hospice – which required a masters degree that I didn’t have. My husband of 33 years had died several months earlier, so I figured “Why not?”

I chose, and was accepted by, the Jesuit School of Theology (I thought that sounded impressive) at Berkeley (which to me meant “perpetual offbeat distractions” off campus) to work for a Master of Theological Studies Degree.

During my studies a classmate mentioned a book about Celtic spirituality, called Listening for the Heartbeat of God by J. Philip Newell. With so much else to read, I could only skim through the book, but I did learn about the Synod of Whitby held in 664AD. Various leaders of the Christian Church met that year to concretize some “official” practices of the Church. This pitted the Celtic Christian traditions against the Roman Christian traditions.

There were great debates about such trivial things as whether a monk’s hair should be tonsured at the crown or at the sides, and the actual date of Easter. But more importantly, the choices made by ecclesial authorities in this Synod would gradually define the underlying spirituality of the Christian Church from that point on.

Would the Church rely on the Authority of St. John, whom Jesus called his “beloved disciple” and whose spirituality informed the Celtic Church? Or would they look to St. Peter, whom Jesus called “the rock” and whose spirituality informed the Roman Church? I’m not going to recount the tedious arguments of contemporary scholars about all this – those kinds of discussions are what nearly made me give up on earning my degree (I got the degree, but that pretty much finished off my career as a Christian).

As a poet I am far more interested in rich metaphors than academic minutiae. Is God immediately available to us (John, leaning in at the Last Supper to listen for the heartbeat of God)? Or is God distant, accessible only through intermediaries (Peter, holding and guarding the keys to the Kingdom)?

A few weeks ago I read the phrase “Celtic spirituality” in a book of poetry, which sent me rooting around on my bookshelves, looking for Newell’s book again. I found it, blew the dust off the top, and started reading; I became fascinated with Pelagius, a Celtic Christian monk born two centuries before the Synod of Whitby.

I wanted to read more, not just about Pelagius, but by him. I was able to borrow an old copy of The Letters of Pelagius through an interlibrary loan from a theological college library in Texas (I LOVE our library system!). If I wanted to own a copy of the book, The Letters  of Pelagius now costs from $74 to $244 used, and from $259 up for a new copy. Wouldn’t a fourth century monk vowed to poverty be astonished at that?

Pelagius was the son of a Welsh bard, steeped in the nature mysticism that preceded Christianity in Britain. As a Christian monk he travelled to Rome where he became a teacher, a writer, and a spiritual guide. Church, for him, was more a community than an institution. He counseled that we should look for our spiritual truths not in an organized Church, but with an anamchara, a soul friend, what we might today call a spiritual counsellor or spiritual director – someone whose spiritual life we admire, to whom we can speak to honestly about our spiritual wonderings. We can better understand what we think in our hearts by saying it out loud to someone who will honor it in confidence.

Pelagius preached the goodness of creation: “If we look with God’s eyes, nothing on the earth is ugly.” That goodness includes people, who are born not in sin but in goodness, what Matthew Fox in our own time would come to call “original blessing.” Yes, humans do evil things, but any darkness in them is less than the divine Light in them, which the darkness “cannot overcome,” according to St. John.

Pelagius called for the redistribution of wealth (even from the Church and its leaders), taught women to read Scripture, preached equality of male and female. In one of Pelagius’ letters he said, “You will realize that doctrines are inventions of the human mind as it tries to penetrate the mystery of God. You will realize the Scripture itself is the work of human minds, recording the example and teaching of Jesus. Thus it is not what you believe that matters; it is how you respond with your heart and your actions. It is not believing in Christ that matters; it is becoming like him.”

No wonder Pelagius was excommunicated from the Church, banished from Rome, and labeled a heretic! We cannot have Christians actually following the teachings of Jesus, actually acting as he did! Distributing wealth? Caring for the marginalized? Renouncing power-over? Listening within our own hearts for the wisdom that we seek? Blasphemy! This is why one almost never hears the name Pelagius without an accompanying word: heresy. Pelagius returned from Rome to the Celtic world, probably Ireland, where he worked “underground,” writing anonymously, serving the Celtic faithful, and continuing to praise the deep goodness of creation.

In my own spiritual life, I’ve decided to correct the regrettable decisions made at the Synod of Whitby. I choose the open-heartedness of John rather than the tight-fistedness of Peter.

 Furthermore, seeing how well Pelagius’ teachings align with my own theology, I’ve chosen to change the conventional phrase “Pelagian Heresy” to “Pelagian Heritage.”

And I’m delighted to go even one step further: I’ve decided to elevate him (because I can) to “Saint Pelagius.” I think I’ll make September 26 his feast day, and the white oak leaf his symbol, standing for generosity, inherent wisdom, and rebirth.

“Saint Pelagius.” It has a nice, Celtic, old-time-religion ring to it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Mortal Beings,” my first book of poetry, is now well and truly launched into the world. And I’m even more in love with it than I was when it was first accepted for publication.

The launch celebration was held at Enso House, our island’s end-of-life care residence for people with terminal illnesses. There couldn’t have been a more appropriate venue; some of the poems in the book were actually written at Enso House, where I’ve served as a volunteer caregiver for many years.

The huge Enso House dining table was relocated and the dining room became our “salon.” We had just enough seating for the twenty-five who came to hear the poems, discuss the writing process, and nibble on the fabulous snacks that friends provided.

Long ago I learned that poems are meant to ingested in two ways: reading the words on a printed page, and hearing the words spoken aloud. In each way a poem enters the receiver through a different sense. And each way allows a poem to lodge in the body of the receiver in a different manner as well.

My preference always has been to let a poem in through my eyes, to savor the words and the construction, to see how the poem is laid out on the page, to think about its message. But it’s also wonderful to let go to the voice, to the cadence, and to the meaning the poet bestows through their particular emphases.

So if we get to read a poem AND hear it read to us, the poem becomes a much richer experience.

But there is yet another dimension to poetry. I discovered it at the book launch, and at the readings that have followed in its wake. It is another element that rises in the space surrounding the reader and the listeners. Is it the chemistry of pheromones? Is it the physics of electrical vibration? Some other kind of invisible energy?

Oh heck, let’s just call it magic. It is a spell, almost palpable, shimmering just on the edge of sensibility. It is cast by combining the receptive presence of listeners with the words carried by the author’s voice. This magic spell enables a poem to become more than it was in the mind of the poet, more than it seemed to the publisher, more than it could ever be on the page. It makes the poem become a living being.

Now that I’m aware of it, I want that magic replicated! I want it to happen once again, twice again – often – and in a variety of venues. It feels to me as if that magic spell just might contribute to replenishing the dwindling supply of JOY in our world.

Hint: if you’d like to become a part of the magic, I’d welcome your facilitating a connection with your book club, discussion group, library, favorite bookstore, place of learning or worship or healing.

Here’s to the joy of speaking poetry!

[I’ve had this cartoon on my office wall for ages, and don’t remember its source – probably “Funny Times.” I’ll be happy to attribute it correctly if anyone knows the source.]

At age twenty-two I was a young mother juggling three babes under four years old. One particularly chaotic morning I decided that I should design for myself a coat of arms; the motto on its banner would declare “ADAPTABILITY!” No; better yet, I found the Latin equivalent: “ACCOMMODARE!” It became my private battle cry, telling the world, “I can do this, I can bob and weave, I can take a tennis player’s stance, I can guard the rim, I can catch/ return/ fix/ deflect anything that comes my way; I can adapt!”

For example: one vacation (that’s when Mom gets to do all the chores with none of the appliances) in Upper Michigan in May (raining during the day, freezing at night), in a soggy canvas tent filled with two grown-ups, three energetic penned-up children (only one potty-trained), and a dachshund (unwilling to go pee in the rain). “ACCOMMODARE!”

Another example: my husband got a promotion to a new city. Sure, bring me empty boxes on Thursday and I’ll have the five of us (plus the dog and her five new puppies) moved into the new house on Saturday. Five months later, yet another new location? Eleven moves in seven years? No problem. “ACCOMMODARE!”

By the time I was forty-one my children were fledged. I adapted VERY well to the empty nest. Now most of the changes in my life (retreats, volunteering, college courses) were initiated by me, and it was my husband who wasn’t so sure he liked change.

Around age 50 menopause arrived, and physical changes came swooping in. I understand that many physical changes are wonderful. For instance, nearly every cell in our bodies is replaced almost continuously – I have entirely new skin every three weeks, my stomach is renewed every three days; my nervous system, I’m told, lasts a lifetime. But if so much renews itself, WHY do the wrinkles and sags and aches remain?

We are counseled to “live in the Now” – every moment, every click of the second hand on my office clock marks a Now, and another Now, and yet a different Now. I accept the wisdom of this spiritual advice – but still, every click of the clock, every Now, is a change to which I have to adapt.

The older I get, the more visible change becomes; and the more change is clearly inevitable, the less I like it. I’m in my seventies now, and sometimes I notice twinges of annoyance at even the tiniest change. Often dinner guests help in the kitchen, which is wonderful; and often they put things away where things would go in their own kitchens. So now, where is my jar opener? Where’s my favorite wooden spoon? And the measuring cup! Where the hell is my pyrex measuring cup?!

There is a way that I like things to be on the countertop: not lined up neatly, but in artistic groupings. (Is it possible that I’m feeling cranky about something THIS unimportant? Yes, it is possible.)

I like my books to stay in piles where I can find them because that’s where I put them last. The papers on my desk, too – those piles are my own quirky archaeological filing system.

And, damn it, yes, I want THAT brand of toilet paper, and I want it set to dispense from the FRONT not the back of the roll!

Even the cash-back kind of change sometimes annoys me, so I throw all the coins in the tip jar or the animal welfare donation box.

Of course I need to face the fact that change happens necessarily, and it happens constantly, and it happens (I believe, deep down) for the best. If it weren’t for changes, our glorious, mysterious multiverse would vanish.

Nevertheless, sometimes when I’m feeling curmudgeonly, and even though I know it’s futile (and would be fatal), I say, “Keep the change(s), won’t You? Throw change wherever Your celestial tip jar is. For just a little while I’d like for things to stay precisely as I want them and without changing one iota!”

Then, once I’ve gotten over my snit, I try to face the next Now with courage. I polish off my trusty coat of arms with its splendid banner. I shout “ACCOMMODARE!” And I carry on.

 

My Jury Duty Summons directed me to call the jury information message line after 5:30PM on Monday, April 15, to see if there was a trial scheduled for that week. But when I called the number at 5:45, the recorded message was for potential jurors scheduled to call in on April 8. I figured the court had had a busy day, and the message hadn’t yet been changed for the 15th. So I called half an hour later. Same April 8 message. Six tries later it was past my bed time, and I quit for the day, not knowing whether or not I had to show up at the courthouse at 8:30 the next morning.

By 7:00AM on Tuesday the 16th the message was still the same, and I was in a quandary: Do I assume there is no trial scheduled, and go on about my day? It wouldn’t be my fault that I didn’t show up for a jury pool. But what if there IS a case to be heard, and I’m not there to perform my civic duty? I couldn’t ponder the question too long – I’d have to leave in half an hour to make it to the courthouse in time. Okay, I decided, I’ll go, and err on the side of civic responsibility.

I like being on a jury, and I like seeing our system of justice up close. A few years ago I served on a jury for a week-long trial in Federal District Court in Seattle. For over a decade, until I retired two years ago, I served the Superior Courts of several counties as a Guardian ad Litem and a Certified Professional Guardian. I was appointed by judges to investigate guardianship cases; I wrote and filed reams of legal documents and presented them at hearings. I wasn’t an attorney; nor was I a paralegal, in that I did not work for an attorney; I guess I was a perilegal (though there isn’t such a word), because I worked, and loved working, on the perimeters of law. And on Tuesday morning the 16th I was looking forward to serving on a jury again – yet another angle from which to view our American jurisprudence.

As I got ready to put my keys and wallet and notebook on the courthouse security conveyor belt, the security guard asked, “Here for jury duty?” I said, “Yes,” and he said, “No trial this week.” Another man was standing off to the side; he gave me a half smile and said he’d made the 90-minute trip from Stanwood, only to hear he, too, wasn’t needed. The guard said he was blind-sided about having to inform people – he’d already sent four folks back home, and while we were standing there another five potential jurors showed up.

Do you know what was wonderful about this? Nobody got angry, nobody blamed anybody.

Stuff happens. In fact, when I suggested that despite its flaws I thought our system of justice was probably the best in the world, several people agreed and joined in with examples. By now we were standing out in the sunshine, chatting on the courthouse steps. The guard was talking about his various careers, the man from Stanwood said he had really wanted to be on a jury, and three other folks – strangers before that morning – decided to walk together to a nearby coffee shop that had great home-baked pastries.

I walked back to my car and said, “Thank you, Mrs. Pollifax!” Just the week before, I’d finished a mystery novel titled The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman. And because the book so delighted me, and because Mrs. Pollifax would have loved that scenario on the county courthouse steps, I’ll share with you few paragraphs from the book. What follows is a conversation among the protagonist and “Lulash,” a guard in a remote Albanian prison, and “Major Vassovic” of the Albanian Secret Police. Mrs. Polifax is explaining the American criminal justice system. If you want to learn how those unlikely three came to have this conversation, do read the book.

* * * * * *

[Mrs. Pollifax says]…“it’s in the hands of a jury, you know. It takes twelve people to decide on a person’s guilt.”

Major Vassovic stared at her. “Twelve officers, you mean.”

“Oh no,” said Mrs. Pollifax. “Twelve people. Citizens. Ordinary people. Working people.”

The two men stared at her incredulously. “But then no one would ever be found guilty. Who instructs them?”

Mrs. Pollifax smiled forgivingly. “They are free to make up their own minds from the evidence that’s presented.”

Major Vassovic looked thoroughly alarmed; Lulash looked interested. “Explain to me how it works,” he said.

… “It works like this, “Mrs. Pollifax said…and began diagramming a courtroom. “The judge sits here,” she announced, drawing a circle, “and we will call this the jury box and draw twelve circles here. You will be one of them, and I will be another, and the major will be a third.”

“Please, no,” said the major in alarm.

“It’s only on paper,” she told him soothingly. “And we will pretend that you, Mr. Lulash, are a farmer, and I am a housewife, and Major Vassovic sells ties in a store.”

“What are our political affiliations?” asked Lulash quickly.

“Oh, but that doesn’t matter at all.”

“But it must.”

She shook her head. “No, because this is a court of law and justice. We would be concerned only with the truth.”

Lulash said, “But surely the jury would have been appointed by party officials?”

“No,” said Mrs. Pollifax firmly. “Not appointed at all. No commitments, no ties, no obligations. Absolute freedom to decide.”

Zott!” cried Major Vassovic despairingly.

“Then surely the judge is appointed?”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Pollifax.

“Ah!” cried Lulash triumphantly.

“But the judge has nothing to do with the verdict,” emphasized Mrs. Pollifax. “He cannot decide whether a man is guilty or innocent. That responsibility rests with the twelve jurors.”

Lulash looked bewildered. “He cannot tell the twelve jurors they’re wrong? He cannot punish them if they bring in the wrong verdict?”

“Absolutely not,” replied Mrs. Pollifax.

* * * * * * *

So, the next time you receive a Jury Duty Summons, please ask yourself, “Isn’t this a great system?”

law photo

 

 

Last Sunday I was asked to give a talk at our local Unitarian Universalist Church. The title was, “A Writer, Being Written.”

This was the first time I’d spoken in public about my relationship with the holy Wisdom that I’ve searched for and (mostly) welcomed since I was a child.

When this Wisdom shows up (the timing totally out of my control), I’ve been inspired, annoyed, and/or encouraged at watersheds and crossroads throughout my life.

In my talk I described these encounters as an Invisible Hand: it has nudged me in one direction when I might have chosen another; it has caused me to open my mouth to speak to a stranger that I would otherwise not choose to meet. Also I described this Wisdom as a Silent Voice, advising me, suggesting (or demanding) that I reconsider a decision, and helping me through complicated scenarios. Since I am a writer, I recognize these actions as those of an editor, and decided to call this Wisdom my “Sacred Editor.”

Unlike the writing and editing of poetry, the mystical editing of my life doesn’t get to be pondered and polished, rewritten and improved with time. Either I pay attention to the Editor in the moment, or not – there is no going back to change those watershed points.

The writing of poetry is mystical in a different way. Words are under the jurisdiction of The Muse – She’s that aspect of the Sacred Editor that most often inhabits my belly, where the stories of my life’s experiences are transformed into poetry. The process follows a fairly predictable sequence: The Muse and I work together in the playground of words to make my poems the best we know how to do. When we can’t think of any way to make a poem better, then I send it off to Marian, my favorite copyeditor.

When the copyeditor’s notes come back, The Muse steps in again, now looking over my shoulder as I consider Marian’s comments. “Hmmm,” the Muse says, “yes, I think she’s right about that line break . . . No, I like that word – the way the single syllable changes the rhythm, makes the reader pause – I think you should keep that one the way we wrote it.”

And then, after agonizing over every word and syllable and punctuation mark for another day or week, out the poem goes into the world to sit for another month, or several, on a literary journal editor’s desk, hoping and whining for attention. That editor may ask to publish the poem (hooray!); or, more likely, they’ll send a thanks-but-no-thanks form letter to add to my burgeoning file; or, I’ll never hear from them at all. Then the Muse will sympathetically kiss the top of my head, and I’ll take heart, and send the poem out to yet another journal.

This week I’m taking some retreat time with my friend Corrine, at her lovely home overlooking Saratoga Passage on the east side of Whidbey Island. This retreat blends the two ways the Sacred Editor works in my life: writing, and being written. I’m loving it. First, I’m submitting to the Sacred Editor by taking time away, listening, giving Him opportunities to tweak ideas and intentions that will influence my life’s future. And second, I’m checking in with The Muse in that place in my gut where She stirs up the juices of memories, and energizes my words. For nearly a week I get to write, to just show up for meals that my hostess prepares, to have deep conversations with her about Life and the Sacred, to laugh and play with words, and to read poetry drafts to my dear appreciative friend.

Tomorrow I’ll pack up my pajamas and my computer and my poetry sketchbooks. I’ll haul them all back home, intending to keep working nearly every day on writing and being written. But at home is never quite the same as when I’m away, and never quite so successful as when I’m on a retreat purposefully listening to both the Sacred Editor and the Muse.

 


A new phrase has cropped up in journalism. More and more often, in just the last six months or so, I’m seeing the phrase to “walk back,” referring to a comment or opinion.

Have you noticed it? This or that politician makes a statement that they may not have thought through carefully; or it’s an opinion they assume has the approval of the crowd before them. Or it just slips out in an ad lib moment. They see their political “handlers” blanch, and suddenly the speech is cut short. A few days (or minutes!) later they realize that the comment was unwise, or could be taken out of context. Before long the speaker, or their communications manager, feels the need to “walk it back.” The speaker tries to reframe the comment, to make it vanish; they wish away the spoken opinion. In that “walking back” they often make a bigger mess of things than what they hoped to erase.

It takes a great misuse of creative energy to try to make the public believe that their eyes and ears deceive them. Especially in this world of social media where an idea or opinion can go viral and circle the globe within seconds, before there is a chance to “walk it” anywhere.

It used to be more acceptable to make a mistake, to misspeak. We are fallible creatures, after all. That doesn’t make a blunder any less awkward, nor the damage any less hurtful if it caused harm.

But there is a time-honored exercise called “eating one’s own words.” We can admit it if we misspoke. We can apologize if necessary, right in the moment. And then move on.

The 18thcentury poet Alexander Pope, in his poem “An Essay on Criticism,” assures us that “to err is human.” He counsels us not to let ego get in the way of apology nor compassion be lost in criticism: “good-nature and good-sense must ever join: to err is human; to forgive, divine.”

Pope also recommends that we “make use of ev’ry friend—and ev’ry foe.” It must be acceptable sometimes to make mistakes in public. We must be encouraged to speak our truth, and then to stand in that truth even when others disagree. And, standing there, it is equally wise to let the other’s differing truth be heard, perhaps to become a nuance of our own.

We need to walk our talk. But let’s encourage each other to walk it, not back, but forward, toward a richer understanding of ourselves in the larger context of civility and community.

A NOTE ABOUT MY NEW BOOK, “Mortal Beings”: As I mentioned in last month’s post, the publisher’s marketing and distribution machinery will kick into its highest gear if the benchmark of 155 pre-sales is hit before March 15. We’re about 25 copies short of that goal right now. THANK YOU to all who have pre-bought. I know it’s strange to buy something sight-unseen. But if you are intending to buy a copy, and haven’t gotten around to it yet, NOW is the time. Please help my new book reach its pre-sales goal. Just go to FinishingLinePress.com, and input Cynthia Trenshaw. I am SO grateful to you!


Mortal Beings, a new collection of my poetry, is being published this May by Finishing Line Press of Georgetown, KY. 

Not surprisingly, the favor I’d like to ask is that you purchase a copy or two. And the favor is even more than that – I’m asking that you PRE-purchase copies before March 15, and here’s why:

It used to be that when an author’s manuscript was accepted, the publisher took over everything from that point on – all editing, interior design, title, cover design, press-run decisions, promotion, marketing, and probably a few things more that I’m forgetting now.

Those were, perhaps, the good old days. That system was far easier for the author who had less responsibility for the finished product. It was also more frustrating for the author, who had little further to say about the processes that created the book.

Now, especially with the smaller presses that currently publish poetry, the author is much more engaged in creating the book. For Mortal BeingsI got to choose the book title, the cover illustration (a wonderful abstract photo by my friend Corrine Bayley), the organization of the poems.

I’m also asked to participate in the promotion for the book, and here’s the benefit of your favor to me: The more books you and your friends buy during the two months of pre-sale, the more benefits the author (that’s ME) gets from the publisher – more author’s copies, more review copies, more promotional efforts by the publisher, more submissions for awards and recognitions.

If we can tally up 155 pre-publication sales of the book before March 15, I will be well-compensated and very pleased. And my poems will move further afield, making their way into the hands of those who appreciate moving, well-told stories.

Please link with www.finishinglinepress.com  and click on either “Preorder Forthcoming Titles” or “Bookstore,” then input either Cynthia Trenshaw or  Mortal Beings  in the search box. Mortal Beings  costs $14.99. If you have friends or family who would be interested, please forward this blog post to them as well.

THANK YOU for considering a preorder of Mortal Beings. And thank you for tolerating this month’s totally self-serving blog post.

Other recent publishing news for me:

Five of my poems are in the January 2019 issue of the gorgeous online literary journal called “Peacock Journal.” They are at: http://peacockjournal.com/cynthia-trenshaw-five-poems/

And the Winter 2018 Issue of “Redheaded Stepchild” magazine carries my poem entitled “Prism.” It can be found at:

http://www.redheadedmag.com/poetry/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=612:prism-by-cynthia-trenshaw&catid=36:poetry&Itemid=59

This is an important time for me in my writing career, and I’m grateful to you for your enthusiastic support. Please let me know if there is a way I can reciprocate in the days ahead.

Photo by thost
Photo by thost

It’s Christmas Time, late December, when capitalists celebrate Consumerism, Pagans celebrate Winter Solstice, and Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. During Christmas Time I sometimes remember the day I was out shopping with my three small children in tow. They overheard another shopper swear, “Jesus H. Christ!”, and one of the kids asked me, in all innocence, what Jesus’ middle name was. Taken aback, I asked him what made him ask that. “Well, that man said Jesus’ middle name began with an H, so what did the H stand for?” Thinking quickly (which mothers with young children have to do on a regular basis), I replied, “Well, I’m not sure, honey, but I think it was probably ‘Holy.’” 

Whew, got around that one!

There is nothing quite so fraught in the lives of new parents as the choosing of a child’s name. There can be all sorts of strings attached, all sorts of underlying intentions and considerations and traps. Whom shall we honor, or remember, or please, or piss off? If we give her this name, what is she likely to be nicknamed? What will the acronym of the name be? Will that distant elderly relative leave us a bequest for that child? If we MUST use an aunt’s out-dated name, can we hide it as an initial in the middle of the child’s name and only reveal the name if necessary?

I never thought of my mother’s mother, Gertrude Quick, as having a sense of humor until I realized that she’d named her daughter Dorothy Blanche, and her son John Biery – “Dorothy Be Quick” and “John Be Quick.” Cute.

My husband and I named our firstborn “Joseph Thomas Trenshaw.” That was a home run name – in one brilliant choice he became the namesake of four: his two grandfathers: Joseph Thomas (my father), and Joseph Trenshaw (my husband’s father); his uncle: Joseph Thomas (my brother); and his father: Joseph Trenshaw (my husband). That was a LOT of Josephs in one family, so we called him by his middle name, Tommy.

I have no middle name. When I’m filling out a form in a medical office or a bank I just put a line through the blank space asking for a middle initial. (I’ve also been known to answer “Person to call in an emergency” with “Doctor” and to fill the blank for “sex” with “occasionally.” But that may be too much information for my readers!)

I don’t have a middle name. This is because (I was told), when I married I would – “of course” – use my maiden name to fill that gap. I was at least twenty-five years old before I realized the huge presumptions in that explanation: when (not “if”) I married, I would take my husband’s surname, and I would want to keep my maiden name as part of my identity. I was at least forty before those presumptions made me really angry.

I did get married, at age 19. I did take my husband’s surname. But I did not keep my maiden name as a middle name. At first it was because I simply wanted to have some say in the matter. Later, out of sheer spite, I chose to continue having no middle name, ever.

And you know, I haven’t missed it a bit.

book photo

[photo by Comfreak]

Many Octobers ago, I said to myself, “This is as good a time as any.” I pulled out a 5×8 blank book that was stashed among my office supplies, and began “My Book of Blessings.” The first blessing I wrote was “For Christina’s suggestion that I record a daily blessing, Thank You.”

That blessing was written on October 13, 2004. Since then I have recorded four-thousand eight-hundred forty-eight blessings. My third blank book will be filled by the end of this year, and a fourth one is waiting patiently for me to initiate it.

If I had to evacuate my home in an emergency, my three Blessings Books are what I would grab just after my wallet and keys.

I have instructed my friends that, when I lie dying, I want to be read to from my Blessings Books. Just randomly, not in any particular order. I want to be reminded of how good – how blessed – my life has been. And, if I am able, I might want to elaborate on blessings that I remember especially fondly. Mostly, however, there are not connected stories, just a grateful noticing and remembering of something from each day.

These blessings are small, simple, usually just one a day – like,

(#814, 1/4/07) “Saw an owl in flight tonight by full moon. Thank You” and

(#1214, 2/8/08) “Planted a yellow primrose in the rain. Thank You” and

(#1764, 8/11/09) “Saw the Wild Horses sculptures above the Columbia River, again after 20 years. Thank You” and

(#2969, 10/16/12) “Carrot/ginger soup. Thank You” and

(#3130, 10/15/13) “Hundreds of orb webs strung between overhead power lines and illuminated by a fresh coat of fog. Thank You.”

Sometimes I can’t choose just one noticing, and so I record a string of wonderful things. Like

(#4315, 6/6/17) “Morning sun through red poppies, bunnies frolicking, a gourmand deer, spectacular Olympic Mountains, and meals with friends. Thank You.”

And sometimes I even acknowledge the blessing in painful things, like

(#3707, 12/5/15) “Totally exhausted from 16 hours of retreat facilitation work in one day. Nevertheless . . . Thank You” and

(#4566, 2/15/18) “Feeling my heart break over yet more gun violence. May my heartbreak be my prayer. Thank You.”

No blessing is too small to be recorded: (#4430, 9/30/17) “Brown basmati rice. Thank You.” And no blessing is too huge: (#4815, 10/22/18) “Leo died at about 2:00 this afternoon. I am grieving deeply. For his amazing life, Thank You.”

On Thanksgiving Day last week, after the feast, and after the leftovers were divided up and sent home with guests, and after the dishwasher was running, I pulled out my three Blessings Books, and thumbed through them for an hour or so. Then I held them in my hands, placed them over my heart, and whispered, “Oh yes, Thank You, so very much!”

Then I put them back on the shelf, so I’ll know right where they are . . . in case I ever have to evacuate my home in an emergency!

NOTE: POETRY PUBLISHED – “Peacock Journal,” a lovely online literary journal devoted to beauty, is publishing five of my poems in December at PeacockJournal.com . (Unsure yet about exactly which week. But the poems will be held in the journal’s archives over the next year) And stay tuned next month for a pre-publication notice of Mortal Beings, my first book of poetry, to be published by Finishing Line Press.

OVER MY LIFETIME I’ve had many opportunities to learn about grief. I’ve lost a lot of close family members: one brother, four grandparents, one son, two uncles, two parents and a mother-in-law, one husband.

When a family member dies, there are all those departure-from-life tasks to be attended to, most immediately the care and disposal of the body: Embalming? Traditional burial? Green burial? Cremation? Keep or disperse the cremains? Funeral, memorial service, non-traditional ceremony, or none at all? This decision-making can feel onerous, but in fact it is a welcomed, if temporary, diversion from grief.

There may be a glut of sympathy cards. Does one keep them in a pile? For how long? Or put them in a scrapbook to be reread over the years? Or does one angrily rip them into shreds because the pre-printed sentiments don’t begin to address the reality of grief’s pain?

Then there are the sale/disposal/transferral of personal belongings, real estate, financial holdings, accounts needing to be closed and bills to be paid. Even when my 13-year-old son died and there was no estate, and few financials besides medical bills, it still seemed as if there was a lot of paperwork. And one must “be strong” and keep up a good front to attend to all these things. Mourning can come eventually, but not now.

Even with the best advance planning, and the decisions already made, the ”plan” still has to be implemented, and the bulk of grieving can be postponed until “later, when things settle down.”

BUT THIS WEEK I learned something new about grieving. When a dear friend dies, there are seldom any sympathy cards. There is no official role for a friend to play, no tasks that occupy and hold grief at bay. There is only raw mourning, and the tender empty hole inside, a dismally dark hole because the light of my friend’s life has been extinguished.

Because we were both wise, my friend and I had said our goodbyes, each time we were together. Together we’d considered the fact that one of us would die first, and that the remaining friend would miss that one dreadfully. We’d always said, “I love you,” even in his last conscious moments before he was too weak to mumble much more.

So there were no loose ends to be tied up when my friend died. No departure-from-life tasks to distract me. And there are no more dinner dates, no more silly spontaneous limericks, no more fretting over politics, no more swapping stories and sharing village concerns.

Now there are only the severed cords of our no-longer-being-together. They dangle, fraying, swaying in the damp gray winds of October.

Oh god, Leo, we were right. This one who remains misses you dreadfully.

Leo E. Baldwin July 23, 1920 – October 22, 2018

Photo by Christin Chaya