February’s poem…a few days late.
After the Storm
(after the storm )
how the hinges creaked
on the heavy cellar door
and the rough wood scraped
across the palms of my hands
how the sky was grey
and how much of it I could see
now that the trees
were twisted into splinters
and blown away.
how we laid
a bright blue tarp
over the pile of my tangled home
like a quilt over a corpse
before they take her away.
how I sat on the front steps
(to nowhere, now)
scraped the mud from my shoes
and wondered if
tomorrow even mattered.
It’s cold in Chicago. The kind of cold that freezes your sinuses when you breathe deeply through your nose. Cold enough that the Chicago Public Schools are closed today. As I’ve walked through the city with the hood of my down parka pulled up around my head, the number of people who spend their days – and their nights – on the streets has haunted me.
There’s the man who sits at the corner of State and Randolph with a sign that says “2 ugly 2 prostitute”. The bald kid who can usually be found near the bridges that cross from the Loop into the trendy River North neighborhood. “Kemo. Too sick to work. Please help.” There’s a girl near the doors of Macy’s, next to a Christmas window where Santa sits in his sleigh checking names off his “Nice” list. A little grey cat pokes it’s head out from under her coat, sniffing the air. She strokes his nose and shakes her cup. Sometimes I walk past so many people holding signs that they blend into one another in an overwhelming swirl. Homeless. Unemployed. Veteran. Hungry. Family. Help. God Bless.
This month’s poem is a reflection on some of the people I’ve noticed this week, as the weather has gotten colder, and their survival more precarious.
How do you sleep there,
cozied up to the concrete
under your cardboard sheets
with the chocolate coated wind blowing across your face?
Do you dream of Mercedes and Lexus?
Of screaming sirens?
Or do your dreams float you away,
back to when you squinted into the sun
as a baseball thudded into your leather glove?
Long before you held a sign
that described your life in three words.
How do you sleep there,
wrapped in trash bags
under windows that were filled with diamonds and pearls
just a few hours ago?
Does that hood, pulled tight around your face
keep your ears warm?
Or do you touch them with your fingers every morning to make sure they’re still there,
before you roll up your home
and take your seat outside Walgreens?
Shaking the change in your plastic cup,
inviting people to add to your music.
How do you sleep there,
in the train that rumbles so loudly
beneath the window of my bedroom?
I’ve thought of you in the tea shop, asking me if I come here often.
“It’s cold,” you said.
“And they’re letting me be.
I’ll sleep on the train again tonight.
It’s cold there too.”
And every time that train passes,
I wonder if you’re asleep.
Because I’m not.
There has been a lot happening in my head over the last month or so. Enough that I haven’t been able to sort it out in order to write about it in any kind of cohesive way. Until now.
I realized a few weeks ago that I process things through poetry, the way other people process through prose in a journal. There’s something about poetry that lets me touch things I couldn’t otherwise get to. For me, prose is my craft. Stories don’t come easily to me – I have to work for them and fight for them. But poetry…poetry is my playground.
So, this year, I’m planning to produce and share one poem a month, along with some of the back story to it.
Here’s to a poem laden 2015!
They took her away on a Wednesday in mid-December. The undertaker was a living stereotype: a tall, gaunt man with pale cheeks and cold hands, already wearing a black suit at five am. I watched them wheel the gurney out the door and down the walk, tucking in the edges of the brightly colored quilt that covered her. Lois stood on her porch across the street, blue cardigan pulled tightly around her shoulders. She waved goodbye, blowing a kiss as the hearse disappeared around the corner.
Megan’s voice had cut through my dream several hours earlier. I’d been on the couch, sleeping for the first time in days. “Hey,” she said, shaking me slightly, “Hey. I think she’s taking her last breaths.” I was on my feet before I was fully awake, moving into my mom’s room, barely missing the glass coffee table.
I could see her across the dim room, her pale skin stretched taut across her thin face. She was reclined in the chair she’d refused to leave, not wanting to be in bed again after a month-long hospital stay. I saw her chest rise and fall, heard the shallow breath and the telltale rattle. In. I held my breath, waiting. Out. I exhaled with her. In. I held my breath again. Out. I barely heard the air leave her body. And then nothing.
Megan and I crept closer, watching and waiting. She stood on one side and I stood on the other and we leaned down. “How do we know?” I whispered. My hand hovered over my mom’s chest. I looked across at Megan. “Every horror movie I have ever seen is flashing through my head. If I touch her and she grabs my wrist I’m going to have a heart attack.” Megan’s snort gave me courage, and I lowered my palm. I felt the bones of her still chest through the pink cotton of her nightshirt. I waited, not daring to move away yet. I touched her face with my other hand, my fingers moving over her cool, dry skin. I met Megan’s eyes and we retreated across the room to sit side-by-side on the day bed.
When the hospice nurse arrived she listened with her stethoscope before she stroked my mom’s forehead and cheek with a gentle hand and quietly spoke words of blessing. “The Lord bless you and keep you.”
After the nurse left and the undertaker had come and gone, taking my mom with him, I looked over at Megan. “Can we go to breakfast? I haven’t left this house in four days.”
Before we left, I went back to my mom’s room. Just outside her window, two blue jays were fighting over the last of the seed in the feeder we’d hung where she could see. Her chair was upright, the footrest tucked in, a pink nightshirt folded neatly in the seat. I picked up the remote from the table next to her chair and pressed the power button, cutting off a piano version of Silent Night. I reached down and flipped the switch on the power strip, darkening the white Christmas lights that had been on since we’d decorated the tree four weeks earlier. I moved to the window and pulled the string on the blinds, tilting the slats to block out the beginning of the day. I stopped one more time at the doorway to look back at the room, now quiet and dark. Then I stepped into the hall, pulled the door closed, and walked into After.
My grandmother would have been 104 today if she was still living. She was a lively, feisty lady. This is one of my last (and favorite) memories of her.
Gram was sitting up in the hospital bed, her left foot slightly elevated. She had broken her ankle after a fall from her motorized scooter. She’d never quite figured out the difference between forward and reverse. The doctor said she had two options: surgery or a wheelchair for the rest of her life. “Cut me open, doc,” my 93-year-old grandmother told him. “I’m not spending the rest of my life in a chair.”
It was late on Sunday afternoon, the day after Christmas. Her side of the shared room was undecorated, except for the gingerbread house we’d brought up a few days earlier. She had shown it off to everyone who passed by, right up until the roof caved in. She held a gold tin of cookies in her lap, a prized gift, sent yearly from my cousins in California. Every few minutes she lifted the lid up to peek inside. Her mouth moved as she counted them.
We had brought a few gifts for her. A couple of books, some puzzle magazines and an penguin wearing an elf hat. Gram pressed the penguin’s wing and danced in her bed as it sang “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree”. My mother handed Gram an envelope. Her hands shook a little as she tore it open and pulled out a handmade certificate. She put her artificial larynx to her neck and her robotic voice read aloud: This certificate good for two hands per day of the card game of your choice. No expiration. My grandmother looked at my mom and raised an eyebrow. As long as I could remember, card games had been a battleground. My grandmother loved them, my mother did not. “Two hands. That’s it.” my mother told her. “If you push for more, I’ll take it back.”
From behind the curtain that separated us from the other inhabitant of 203, voices began to sing. My grandmother rolled her eyes. “They come every week and they sing hymns for an hour or two,” my mom explained. The voices grew louder as they started the second verse of “Joy to the World”.
My grandmother reached for a book on her night table and held it up. The cover featured a scantily dressed woman looking desperately into the face of a very muscled man. She raised her artificial larynx, buzzed it a couple of times, and turned up the volume as high as it could go. “I don’t like this book,” she said. At that moment, the voices behind the curtain fell silent. My grandmother’s eyes brightened and the edge of her mouth twitched up in a smirk. “I don’t like this book,” she said again. “There’s too much f-.” She got the entire word out as my mom dove for the larynx. Gram was too quick for her, and she switched hands, tossing two more f-bombs before my mom wrestled it away from her.
I only saw my grandmother a few more times after that day, but I always remember her the way she looked as my mortified mother dragged me out of the room before the hymn-singers could see us: shoulders hunched, mouth covered, wheezing with laughter as tears ran down her face. And still holding her cookies.
My mom would have been 69 yesterday. I couldn’t make her lamb stew, or an icebox cake. I couldn’t buy flowers or send a card. So, instead, here’s a story about Jackson Ave – the small town block where she raised me. She would have liked it.
The sky was clear that night, and the lights from Atlantic City had not yet blotted out the stars entirely. The Westcoats, who lived across the street, were the first out of their house, dragging tattered lawn chairs to the sidewalk. Mr. and Mrs. Westcoat set the chairs up carefully side by side and lowered themselves into them, glancing up at the sky.
I was ten years old that spring, and the wait was almost too much to bear. I hopped from foot to foot on the cold slate of the foyer in our old ranch house on Jackson Ave., pressing my nose up against the glass of the storm door so I could see the street better. Someone on the city council had decided that the streetlights should be shut off that night so that the residents of Northfield could see better. It was a once in a lifetime event – everyone said so.
The door of the yellow house at 612 Jackson banged open and Linda came down her walk with her ancient collie, Chenny, at her heels. She had an orange blanket tucked beneath one arm, a flashlight under the other, and wine glasses and a bottle balanced in her hands. She lifted the glasses in greeting as she crossed the street. Then came the DeSalles, from 614, with the block’s other ten year old leading the way swinging a flashlight from her wrist.
“Jen’s here!” I shouted, and raced out of the door barefoot, ignoring my mom’s calls to please put on my shoes. We met in middle of the block, dancing wildly together until I tripped on the uneven sidewalk, pushed up by the roots of the old sugar maples. My mom came out, holding my shoes in her hand, socks tucked inside. She gave me “the look”, handed them to me, and headed across the street. Jen one-foot-two-footed along the hopscotch board we had chalked on the sidewalk earlier that day while I pulled on my shoes. My dad came from the back of the house, carrying two chairs under his arm, and took my hand as we stepped off the curb.
All told, there were thirteen of us waiting there as the night deepened. The men leaned against the car, legs crossed, Budweisers in hand, occasionally glancing up at the sky as they talked about the Eagles’ draft prospects. The women sipped pink wine and chatted about this and that –the neighbor on the corner nobody ever saw and when the city would come fix the sidewalks. Jen and I sat, heads together, noses pointed to the sky, not daring to blink.
We sat like that for what seemed like hours. The wine ran out, and the conversation slowed. Jen’s baby brother fell asleep on their mom’s lap, and I struggled to keep my eyes open and focused on the stars. “There it is!” someone called out, and everyone jumped up, looking to the south, squinting at the sky. “There! Over there!” We all tried to follow the finger to see just what, exactly, it was pointing at.
“I see it too!”
“There! Right above the chimney! Don’t you see its tail?” Voices joined in one-by-one until all of us – except the baby, who slept through it – were declaring we’d spotted it and exclaiming over the bright length of its tail.
The media would report later that Halley’s Comet had not been very visible in 1986. Sightings were rare. In fact, it was the worst viewing year in centuries. But on Jackson Ave., we saw that comet, and we would tell you so. Every last one of us. It was, after all, a once in a lifetime event.
I eased into my second Hutchmoot slowly, breaking in the weekend with a Wednesday night concert in Nashville. I sipped a hard cider while Andrew Peterson and JJ Heller played songs that had soothed my soul over the rockiness of the last year. Thursday morning I joined a small crowd in the warehouse behind Baja Burrito to learn from Jonathan Rogers about translating memory into story. I went for a walk through the neighborhood that hugs Church of the Redeemer.
And then it was time. I only came in once this year. I didn’t need any coaxing. I greeted old friends with hugs and met first timers with a gentle nudge toward the registration table. I shucked corn for that night’s dinner. But this year, Hutchmoot’s magic wasn’t in its sessions. It wasn’t in its music or its books. It wasn’t in an art project or a prayer. It wasn’t even in the amazing food. This year’s magic was summed up by S.D. Smith: What my brother does for me is reflect my story back to me with mercy and grace, so that I can see myself, more and more, the way God sees me.
This year I got to see my story reflected back to me over and over again, with grace and mercy. And even more than that, in a way that affirmed that God has been working – powerfully, graciously, kindly, faithfully- in my life over this last year. It was teling with a friend how sharing her story last year impacted my story this year. It was surprising myself by being brave enough to ask Luci Shaw if the seat next to her at the dinner table was open. It was a late night chat with a friend who has walked with me through much of this last year (she was gracious enough to forgive me…and even laugh…when I fell asleep in the middle of a sentence). It was hearing several old friends comment on the difference they saw in me between last year and this year. “You have this caterpillar to butterfly thing going on,” one of them said.
Hutchmoot was all those things. But when the last notes of the Doxology faded into the rafters of the sanctuary, I was ready to see the skyline of Chicago. I was ready to be woken up by a little grey kitten playing with my hair. I was ready to see my new community at my church. For me, this year, the sweetest thing about Hutchmoot, was realizing I was going home. And I was glad.
“I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame. This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them. Taste and see that that Lord is good; blessed is the one that takes refuge in him.” – Psalm 34: 4-8
Happy Hutchmoot! I know. You don’t know what that is. It turns out it’s harder to explain than you think it should be. So here’s a video taking a shot at it:
That probably didn’t clear it up much, because Hutchmoot is something you have to experience…and given that the 150 tickets sold out in about 10 minutes this year, sometimes that’s a hard thing to do! When we went to the Grand Canyon my mom said “pictures just don’t do it justice” so many times I finally threatened to chuck her in if she said it again. But…that’s probably true for Hutchmoot too. Words just don’t do it justice. But…in an effort to try, here’s my wrap-up from last year:
I came to Hutchmoot tired. Bone tired, my energy and my hope sapped. The past eight years had been characterized by sickness and death, by grief and loss, by discouragement and desperation and despair. I came looking for something I couldn’t even name. Something I could barely remember.
As the last notes of the doxology faded on Sunday afternoon, I was still looking. I had had a good weekend. It was good to be away. But I still felt worn and tattered. Pete broke into my thoughts “You have some art to sign”. I was toward the front of the crowd heading out into the narthex – I had a long drive and I needed to get on the road. And then I saw what we had created together. I saw Jennifer’s plan leaned up against the window. I heard other people exclaim as they caught sight of the tiles all fitting together. And I remembered. I remembered anew that there is an Artist. That as hard and messy and chaotic as these last years have been, they are bounded and finite, like my 5×5 tile (which is good because I was really tired of coloring green!). But they have a purpose, they are critical to the work the Artist is doing. Without them, it wouldn’t be the same, it wouldn’t have the depth or the life it will now. Every tile matters.
As I reflected on the weekend, as I’ve shared about it, I’ve realized that I don’t describe it by what was present, but by what was missing. There was no criticism, no impatience, no judgement, no competition. These are the things that have characterized my life for the last four years. In their absence there was space, and good things started to grow. Encouragement, promise, faith. And then, crawling out of its den, squinting at the sun and wrinkling its nose, so foreign that I barely recognized it…hope.
So hold on the promise! The stories are true – that Jesus makes all things new! The dawn is upon you!
I can’t wait to see what this year brings!
The act of writing inhabits some of my oldest memories. At four or five years old, I would haul an old manual typewriter out of the back of the closet in the spare bedroom. It was heavy in its battered grey case, and I held the handle with both hands and walked backwards, using my weight to drag it across the floor. I’d plant the case in the middle of the living room rug, open the lid and sit cross-legged in front of it. I would insert a mostly-unrumpled piece of paper, lining it up so that “George R. Morrow, Jr.” was settled a finger’s width above the type guide. “Once upon a time…” my little fingers pecked out the letters one by one “…there was a little girl…” And that’s where you could find me on most Saturday mornings: writing about the things that populate a preschooler’s dreams – princesses and dragons and dogs that could talk. Escaping into stories and worlds that were only as limited as my imagination.
As I grew up, writing lost its freedom. It became something that was judged and measured. It became something that could fall short. Writing had to have a purpose, a higher ambition. It lost its joy, it felt dangerous. Over the last decade I’ve flirted with writing. I wrote when something was so pressing on me that I had no recourse but to express it creatively. I only wrote when I couldn’t not write. I only told the stories that walked up to me, introduced themselves, and refused to leave until I told them. I didn’t share anything I’d produced until I pas pretty sure it was as perfect as I could make it. It’s been a very safe way to write.
But over the course of the last month, as I’ve explored Chicago, I’ve realized that maybe I’ve been missing out. Maybe the best writing is borne of the exhilaration that comes from chasing a story down and wrestling it to the ground. Maybe the most exciting thing about writing is uncovering a story, layer by layer, until it surprises you with what it is. Maybe creativity is wild and free and a little bit dangerous. So, this year I’m seeking out stories instead of waiting for them to come to me. This year I’m keeping my headphones off and my eyes open. This year I’m writing longer pieces than poems and blog posts. This year I’m throwing off perfection and sharing things before I’m convinced they’re ready. This year I’m embracing my identity as a writer. And that is terrifying.