Like Broken Bells

Will had a severe genetic disorder: he was non-mobile, non-verbal, legally blind, and unable to swallow; but in the eyes of his parents, and those who could see past his defectiveness, he was precious. Some years ago, I spoke at his funeral, borrowing a metaphor from a story my family had read every Christmas.

The Polar Express is a children’s story by Chris Van Allsburg, told in the voice of a man remembering when he was a little boy, lying awake on Christmas eve, listening for a sound of ringing bells of Santa’s sleigh.

So begins the boy’s dreamlike journey through the night on the Polar Express to reach the North Pole, where he receives from Santa the first gift of Christmas: one silver bell from Santa’s sleigh. Later, upon returning home from the North Pole, the boy is brokenhearted when he learns that he has a hole in his pocket, and has lost his bell.

On Christmas morning the boy awakes, and he and his little sister Sarah open their presents. He writes:

When it looked as if everything had been unwrapped, Sarah found one last small box behind the tree.
It had my name on it. Inside was the silver bell!
There was a note…’Found this on the seat of my sleigh. Fix that hole in your pocket.’ Mrs. C.

I shook the bell. It made the most beautiful sound my sister and I had ever heard.
But my mother said…’Oh, that’s too bad.’
‘Yes, it’s broken’, said my father.
When I’d shaken the bell, my parents had not heard a sound…

Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe.

In my eulogy, I said that Will was that silver bell, and his wonderful spirit was that most beautiful sound which it made. Some of us at first could not hear the sound of that broken bell. But his parents had heard it, loud and clear. They truly believed in Will. They believed in Will’s spirit, and they devoted their lives to making sure that his spirit would have every opportunity to ring true, and it did.

In the five years since that eulogy, I have learned that the bell stands for each of us, not just Will, for each of us is broken in one way or another, needing someone to believe in us, that our soul may ring true.

We are told to love one another, whoever that other may be. Somewhere within each broken bell is a beautiful sound. A bell may be too broken for us to hear its ring, and a spirit may be too broken for us to perceive its humanity. But to love one another means to believe in the humanity of every living soul, for every soul is like a bell that rings for all who truly believe.

Our 15th Anniversary

Fifteen years ago today, we listened to John Lennon’s song, “Grow old along with me”, encircled by our dearest friends and family, each of us with our respective three children coping as best they could with yet another difficult transition; we dug our bare feet into the cold sand of the beach at Figure Eight Island and said our wedding vows while seabirds circled auspiciously over our heads. Auspicious: from a Latin word meaning to foretell the future by observing the flight of birds. What augur could have foretold the future that lay in front of us?

These fifteen years have not been easy. Many obstacles were placed in our paths, and many more were of our own making. Many times our passion nearly drove us apart, but in the end our passion always brought us back together. And each time our rough edges were worn a little more smooth. We learned that it was more important to be kind than to be right, and we learned to join our hands together in prayer. We made it through all the turmoil, to a place of love more serene, yet more intense than the times of our headiest infatuation.

The stillness of our love flows deep, and in the years to come, I pray, deeper still.

… and so it begins

I am a work in progress, like everyone else, but somehow it feels more so. A pilgrim on a spiritual journey with no known destination, not even a compass; but, every day that is not too gloomy the sun rises in the east, and that’s a start.

I am a writer under construction, with little more than a foundation like aging cinderblocks long abandoned, weathered but sturdy, waiting to be built upon. I’ve gone through a creative dry spell. It started at age sixteen and ends at sixty.

The last piece I wrote was for an English class while studying abroad in the 11th grade. It was a short story about a moth and a flame, the moth infatuated by the light, ignis fatuus, that drew him relentlessly inward; repelled by the heat, drawn by the light, circling, spiraling ever closer, until  finally consumed by the flame.

The flame was a metaphor for Truth, and the moth was Max, my older brother, emotionally disturbed, obsessed with Truth and tormented by his inability to grasp it, pacing and smoking, non-stop, smoking and pacing, drawn to the light of Truth and burning in his own private Hell of obsession with something he could never attain.

For a sixteen-year-old, it was a damned good piece of work. I finished it late at night, copied it neatly by hand, inking in careful script on lined paper. The next morning I cycled to school, and handed in my story to the English teacher. The Moth and the Flame would become my last creative endeavor. Later that morning the headmaster came to the classroom, brought me out into the hallway, and told me that my parents had called from New York: Max had died during the night. As though he died as I wrote my final words, the moth had met the flame.

How bizarre the details: a missed train home from the city, walking back home the only way he knew how – along the tracks, not on them, but just to the side, far enough away, except for the draft of the speeding train that sucked him into its path, sideswiping him and breaking nearly every bone, but sparing his life until clots settled in his lungs, pneumonia ensued, and at last his tortured soul found peace.

I never really overcame the sorrow of his passing – maybe none of us did – because we grieved as much his life as his death, both of which left so many questions unanswered. I have lived my life avoiding all that Max suffered: pursuing an unattainable Truth or seeking an unknowable God will only drive you mad. My agnosticism was conceived in fear.

*  *  *

Fast forward forty-four years. I am awakened in the middle of the night, verses of poetry streaming through my heightened consciousness, scrambling for pen and paper and scribbling words that seem not my own but like treasures found, then days of polishing those treasures until they are… no, not quite right yet… but still… good enough for now:

every drop of rain that falls in vain on empty sea,
and every setting sun that fades into the night;
every leaf of gold that withers brown and blows away,
and every seed that falls on barren sand;

every why? that lies awake at night and calls Your name
and cries itself to sleep, and dreams of a because,
awakes, a seed of life, a budding leaf, a dawning light,
and raindrops falling gently ‘cross the land.

Lord, make of me a drop of rain that falls upon the earth
and nourishes the seed of hope You gave us with His birth;
and in my golden years ’til winter withers me away,
let me hold Your light to hearten others on their way.

*  *  *

How did I go from years of clinging bitterly to my agnosticism to writing hopeful poetry full of prayer and capitalized pronouns, talking to God, praising the Son, and inspired by the Holy Spirit?

This is the story of my spiritual journey.

*  *  *

My grandmother was the source of much of my Christian learning, even though she rarely went to church, or spoke of God or Jesus, or quoted scripture, still she taught us, as Jesus did with parables, with stories rich in moral lessons.

These are the stories I learned as a child
from my mother’s dear mother, so gentle, so mild.
Now I still can recall how she smelled, how she smiled,
how she made us each feel like the only grandchild

*  *  *

And so, I wrote a poem about stories:

Through my youth I heard stories of kin long ago,
though the truth of these fables we might never know,
larger truths they revealed, by examples they’d show,
how to be, how to act, how to live, how to grow.

My dear grandmother’s grandfather woke in the night,
when he peered through his window and seeing the sight
of a man dragging sacks of corn, straining with might,
from the barn to a wagon by icy moonlight,

there he saw not a thief, but a man taking feed
for his starving poor children; so great was their need
that my great-great grandfather would follow his creed,
put his shoes and his coat on, to do a good deed;

then, my grandmother’s grandfather walked out that night
without saying a word, not to argue or fight,
but to help a poor man doing all that he might…
he helped carry the corn on that cold starry night.

*  *  *