Pastoral call

When my father put on his collar and his well-shined shoes but it wasn’t a Sunday, we knew he had meetings to attend or visits to parishioners to make and that sometimes, on coming home, he might seem quiet, which was unusual and meant he was turning things over in his mind. I try imagining him as he must have been then, younger than my son is now, counseling people through their griefs and doubts, encouraging the ill, attempting to comfort, confronting so much inequity and pain. What did he know?

Trouble came. His father died young. My little sister was stricken with pneumonia, gasping, feverish, hospitalized. My pregnant mother in such pain she could not climb the stairs to tuck us in at night. And so, with no one near to take me for the day, I was his visitation sidekick, dressed as though for church, carrying paper and pencil and a book I couldn’t yet read. People welcomed us into their homes in formal rooms sun never seemed to reach, seated us on sofas with doilies on the armrests or crocheted throws along the backs, or sometimes in carved wooden armchairs with lion-paw feet. There were often candies in a glass dish on a side table. The women gave my dad coffee and sometimes I got a glass of milk. Once, I had tea in a translucent cup decorated with pastel-colored flowers, and I took two sugar cubes and stirred carefully so as not to spill or make any noise.

Sometimes the parishioner offered me the run of a playroom or nursery–those children now grown, maybe as old as my father–and I rummaged through the old toys and imagined my own stories. It was important to make as little sound as possible, to be a presence invisible to grownups while my father took someone’s hands in his, prayed beside them, or listened to quiet sobbing. Indirectly, I was learning that adults cry, too, and that they were not always invincible, or even in charge.

It seemed a privilege to be with him being with people when they most needed something, Maybe not something he could give or grant them, true. He started to realize that very early in his ministry.


In early childhood, once I abandoned the idea of growing up to be a princess, I liked the idea of being an artist or a scientist when I got to be an adult. That hasn’t quite worked out the way I guess I expected, but my ambitions (if that’s what they were) indicate that I had begun the lifelong process of wanting to understand–well, everything, almost! I found the following passage in Rebecca Elson’s book A Responsibility to Awe, and I feel as she does, though in her case she’s talking about observing and studying the Large Magellanic Cloud and its star structures:

There are times when the enterprise seems mechanical, when the constraint to pursue the truth seems to suffocate the imagination, and the mysteries of the Universe seem irrelevant to the lives we humans lead down here. But on the whole, understanding the Universe seems a fundamental step in understanding our origins, and in establishing a perspective with respect to space and time that I find comforting.

Rebecca Elson, “From Stones to Stars”


It took my father quite some time to find a perspective on life, faith, and human behavior that comforted him. I do not possess the same perspective, but I believe he would be okay with that.


As a freshman in college, seeking to expand my limited science knowledge, I enrolled in a Physical Astronomy course, an introductory seminar class that taught students how physicists study the cosmos. At any rate, it introduced us to how that was done in the early 1970s. Thanks to computer tech and so many rapid changes in the field (we were using slide rules!!), the discipline has changed in some respects. I was terrible at the math, never having gotten beyond Algebra II in high school, but I had a terrific professor and loved the material. As may be obvious to readers of this blog, the cosmos and all that is in it provides me with endless opportunities for learning, speculation, and reflection.

Rebecca Elson, whose book A Responsibility to Awe I just finished reading, keenly reminds me of how fascinating the study of the universe can be and how little we know of it. Each decade the science and the theories take immense leaps in measurement and exploration, and each leap reveals how many more questions we have yet to ask, let alone answer. Not just inquiries into the galaxies, but also biological and ecological worlds to explore: salmon, eels, oceans, mountains, our own histories and our own mortality. Elson’s area of study centered on galaxy formation–the chemical evolution of stars, and globular clusters. But she started out collecting rocks with her geologist father who was doing fieldwork in Canada, then studied biology. It wasn’t easy to be a young woman studying the sciences in the 1970s, and she felt she was drifting a bit; writing, however, she felt more sure of. In the essay that ends this collection, she states that the atmosphere at Princeton during her post-doctoral study was “a stronghold not just of men, but of theoreticians” who looked down on work which involved “mere” observation, which is what she had painstakingly been doing in her research in Australia and Cambridge. At Princeton, though, she met a group of poets who encouraged her work and who made her stay at the university more comfortable. Good observation skills make a terrific foundation for poets.


If the ocean is like the universe
Then waves are stars.

If space is like the ocean
Then matter is the waves
Dictating the rise and fall
of floating things...
  --from "Some Thoughts about the Ocean and the Universe"

She was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma when she was 29, died ten years later, and this book is the only example I’ve been able to find of her poetry. But it is revelatory what Elson does with simple language and deep, theoretical concepts as metaphor, topic, or theme. Some of the poems are so brief, yet I find myself thinking about them again and again. Like good haiku, they are not aphoristic–but they linger. Her sense of awe is palpable in these poems; I think that’s what I like most about her poetry.


We are survivors of immeasurable events,
Flung upon some reach of land,
Small, wet miracles without instructions,
Only the imperative of change.

Salmon Running

Who isn't driven
Up the estuaries
Of another's flesh,
Up rivers of blood,
To spawn close to the heart?


A poem titled “OncoMouse, Kitchen Mouse” thanks the laboratory mice whose lives led to the cancer treatments that, for a time, prolonged her life; “Antidotes to Fear of Death” finds her eating the stars, or stirring herself into a young universe. While one late poem is bleak (“There is no poetry to cancer/To the body betraying itself”), another–the last entry in her notebook–observes the flourishing of spring. Much to learn here. Enough admiration that I wish, selfishly, she’d had more time on earth so I could enjoy more of her poems.


Fledgling Stars in Stellar Nursery by NASA Goddard Photo and Video is licensed under CC-BY 2.0

Bookish decisions

In the past two weeks, I’ve read two contemporary poetry collections that I didn’t, er…love…or perhaps what I mean is I did not respond to them the way I enjoy responding to poems (and no, I will not be naming titles, though I will be giving these books away). While that is a let-down of sorts, I also started reading naturalist Marcia Bonta‘s Appalachian Autumn–which I do love. The book takes an environmental-diary approach that I have enjoyed in other naturalist writers’ work and which, no doubt, I relate to partly because I am also a near-daily diarist of my own backyard; Bonta has much to teach me, because she has a naturalist’s education and long experience. This is one of four Appalachian Seasons books she’s authored, and maybe I should have started with Spring, since that equinox has just passed. I found myself interested in the story this book tells of her family’s legal struggles with local lumbermen and absentee landlords, however. It’s an experience with which, sadly, my beloveds and I are familiar.

And I also began reading a book of poetry I have found exceptionally compelling–Rebecca Elson’s A Responsibility to Awe. Perhaps more on that in a future post. So books continue to enrich my life. I hope that is always the case, but I’ve seen how changes in human neuroplasticity can affect even the most bookish among us. More reason never to take the joys of reading for granted–and to keep my library card current.


In future, I plan to use the library card more than the credit card when it comes to books; but I know I’m weak. Besides, many of the small or indie press poetry books I relish are not easy to find in public library collections. One of my priorities this year is to winnow the home bookshelf stacks, to keep only what I really cannot bear to part with or am sure I will read or refer to again. But how can I be sure? The book lover’s dilemma, isn’t it? Nonetheless, there are definitely texts I can part with if I just take the necessary time to go through the collection. I can donate them to a public library, and even though many of them won’t get curated onto those shelves, at least I will be supporting an institution I value. I have been referring to this process of lightening my bookshelf loads as “culling,” but that word tends to have a negative connotation. I’d like to remind myself of the positive aspects of giving some of my books away: good for me, good for other readers, good for the authors of these books whose work may be discovered by other readers. Less to pack if we ever move, less for my children to deal with when that time comes. Yeah, I’m thinking ahead.