Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sacred Remains

The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land...

We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.

If other eyes grow dull, other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us.

Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation's gratitude, the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan.

(General Orders No. 11, Headquarters Grand Army of the Republic, Washington, D.C)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

My Morbid Obsession

So, I'm thinking about a second blog. Probably doesn't make sense, as my first is time consuming enough. However, the blog pundits often recommend that one's subject matter should be focused; that one ought to write about one's area of expertise. I consider myself to be a generalist--that is, I know a little about a lot. Makes for an exciting life of intellectual inquiry and discovery, but doesn't do much for being an expert at anything.

However, if there is a thread that runs through my life, it would be my fascination with death. That's right. A wee bit morbid, but there it is. It all started when I was a boy, as I wandered alone around old cemeteries and made rubbings of 18th century gravestones. And then there arose my interest in the Civil War. As I discussed in a recent post, I wrote about my two Heald ancestors, Frank and James, who died during that conflict, a conflict that witnessed the death of some 620,00 Americans. Professionally, my greatest gift--hands down--is the writing and preaching of memorial service homilies. An undertaker in Wellesley, MA--for whom I did numerous services--nicknamed me "buryin' Dave." And now there's my work as a hospice chaplain...

Nineteenth century Americans were much more at home with death than we are today. Some would say they were obsessed about it. I love the opening lines of the Prologue to Robert D. Richardson, Jr.'s magnificent Emerson: The Mind on Fire:

On March 29, 1832, the twenty-eight-year-old Emerson visited the tomb of his young wife, Ellen, who had been buried a year and two months earlier. He was in the habit of walking from Boston out to her grave in Roxbury every day, but on this particular day he did more than commune with the spirit of the departed Ellen: he opened the coffin. Ellen had been young and pretty. She was seventeen when they were engaged, eighteen when married. They had made frantic efforts at a cure, including long open-air carriage rides and massive doses of country air. Their life together had been stained almost from the start by the bright red of Ellen's coughing.

Wow! Yes, Mr. Richardson, you have my attention. I'm yours, lead on. He continues: 

Opening the coffin was not a grisly gothic gesture, not just the wild aberration of an unhinged lover. What Emerson was doing was not unheard of...

Not unheard of? What's with these people?

So the title for my new blog is My Morbid Obsession: Death in Nineteenth Century America, the Civil War, and Beyond. What fun! Now I only need to quit my job.

Please drop me a line and tell me what you think.

(Photo credit: Dr. Burr on the Battlefield, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The First Memorial Day

According to David Blight, professor of American History at Yale University, the first Memorial Day (formerly known as "Decoration Day") took place in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865. Organized by black South Carolinians and their white Northern abolitionist allies, it was the culmination of a series of events marking the end of the Civil War and the fall of Charleston.

In Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory , Blight writes:

During the final year of the war, the Confederate command in the city had converted the planters' Race Course (horse-racing track) into a prison. Union soldiers were kept in terrible conditions in the interior of the track, without tents or other coverings. At least 257 died from exposure and disease and were hastily buried without coffins in unmarked graves behind the former judge's stand. 

After the fall of the city, Charleston's blacks, many of whom had witnessed the suffering at the horse-track prison, insisted on proper burial of the Union dead. The symbolic power of the planter aristocracy's Race Course (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freedpeople. In conjunction with...the missionaries and teachers among three freedmen's relief associations at work in Charleston, blacks planned a May Day ceremony that A New York Times correspondent called "a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before"...

During April, twenty-eight black men from one of the local churches built a suitable enclosure for the burial ground at the Race Course. In some ten days, they constructed a fence ten feet high, enclosing the burial ground, and landscaped the graves into neat rows. The wooden fence was whitewashed and an archway was built over the gate to the enclosure. On the arch, painted in black letters, the workmen inscribed "Martyrs of the Race Course"....

The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. But the struggle to own the meaning of Memorial Day in particular, and of Civil War memory in general, had only begun.

(Sketch by A.R Ward, Harper's Weekly, May 18,1867)

Sleep on Brave Soldier!

(DSH Photo: Benjamin Franklin Heald 1843-1864; James Hershey Heald 1839-1862; Sumner Hill Cemetery; Sumner, ME)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

We Behold As In a Magic Mirror: Introduction

They sit side by side clothed in Sunday best, with stiff blued collars, buttoned-down sack coats, and hound’s tooth trousers. They sit in armchairs like little men. The older brother is resolute, sitting up straight with steady gaze. The other, younger by four years, sits with eyes cast slightly downward and to his right. He looks distracted, even sad, as if inward looking on some unfixed point, unable--or unwilling--to stare ahead for that long exposure. Perhaps some itinerant daguerreian portraitist, plying his trade among the small towns and hinterlands of Maine, made the two boys’ likeness. The photograph may have set up shop in the front parlor of their home on Sumner Hill.
Just up the hill from the home where those boys grew up, and where that likeness may have been made, is a country cemetery. Two gravestones stand side-by-side, now slightly askew, among the fallen leaves of late autumn. It is November and the limbs of the trees are bare, starkly etched against the gray sky. Two small American flags placed in metal stanchions, their red, white, and blue startling in that otherwise monotone landscape, flutter in the cold wind blowing across the hill. A gunshot is heard off in the woods, and then another; some deer hunter abroad on that raw, cloudy day. A dog barks, then silence. I stand still gazing at those stones and read the inscriptions:
son of
Hiram &
Sophronia Heald
May 17, 1864
of wounds received in 
the battle of the Wilder-
ness, Va. May 14, 1864;
Æt. 21
A member of Co. C.
20th Me. Reg’t

Sleep on brave soldier!
a life sacrificed, but a Country saved.

And beside that marble stone, the other, identical except the inscription:

son of
Hiram &
Sophronia Heald.
died at the U.S. General
Hospital, Annapolis, Md. 
Oct. 10, 1862
Æt. 23 yrs. 6 m’s.
A member of Co. D. .
29th Mass. Reg.

He was an exemplary and promising
young man and beloved by all who
knew him. He went forth patriotically to
sustain the Constitution and Flag of his
Country, cherishing each as his own life;
and he gave his life for them.

In the twenty-first century, it seems we have lost this living connection with our ancestors. And, yet, many of us desire to be woven again into the fabric of the lives of those who have gone before. In his historical address on the occasion of Sumner’s bicentennial in 1898, the Rev. Lucien M. Robinson spoke these words:

Gazing backward along the track of past ages of the world’s history, we note with interest the changes wrought by the passage of time. We behold as in a magic mirror the mighty men of bygone times. We enter the tent of the general, talk with the philosopher, and listen to the poet. But amid that throng are also our own ancestors, and how eagerly do we scan the multitude to discern their forms, and how gladly would we question them as Dante or Virgil did of old, about their life while here in the flesh… The very instinct of our nature binds us to the past and links our fates with those of our forefathers. We are all children of the ages, inheritors of the past.

We are all children of the ages and long to feel connected, to be a part of a family; one small yet, we hope, precious part of a greater, all embracing whole. Because who we are is bound up in that greater whole--that “beloved community” as the Quaker writer Thomas Kelly once called it--of all those who have gone before, those who are with us now, and those who are yet to come. Christians call that body of the faithful the “communion of saints."

Gazing even more intently into that “magic mirror,” we may see that it is a vast room, a room without walls expanding infinitely outward, and there is no end to the people in it. Expanding ever outward, it embraces all of creation. And every life, in some sense, is extraordinary. Every life is touched by the eternal.
Franklin and James died tragically, at a young age, twenty-one and twenty-three years old respectively. The sheer number of the Civil War dead threatened Americans’ ability to grieve and to mourn, to honor and to hold dear those who had died. The historian Drew Gilpin Faust has suggested that the Civil War, not World War I, may have been the first modern war and as such “inaugurated the loss of innocence, the threat of meaninglessness that characterize modern life.” 

Having no record of how their parents, or their brothers and sisters, responded to Franklin and James’ deaths, we must ourselves imagine it. And we must ourselves, by remembering them, continually make their lives, and their deaths, purposeful. It is for us even now to honor the dead and, we trust, by so doing, to make ourselves truly alive.

Excerpted from We Behold As In a Magic Mirror: Two Heald Brothers From Sumner, Maine

(Photo: Benjamin Franklin Heald 1843-1864; James Hershey Heald 1839-1862; Daguerreotype, Unknown Artist, circa 1852?)

Friday, May 22, 2009

In Memoriam

While on sabbatical in the spring and summer of 2003, I began to write a family history on two Heald ancestors who died during the Civil War. My interest in this topic had begun in grade school when I wrote an essay entitled "The Heald Family of the Civil War." I still have this document--a large scrap book with lined composition paper glued to beige portfolio pages inside. As I now read it, I note various omissions and bits of misinformation, but it reflects throughout the passion I held for the subject as a boy. 

In researching that earlier essay, I came across various old documents folded up in an envelope in my grandmother's desk, among them my great-great grandfather Lysander's yellowed discharge papers from the Union army: "To all whom it may concern: KNOW YE, that Lysander Heald a private of Captain A. Garey's Company (G) 4th Regiment of HA Mass (Heavy Artillery) volunteers, who was enrolled on the 16th day of Aug one thousand eight hundred and sixty four to serve One years or during the war, is hereby DISCHARGED from the service of the United States this Fourteenth day of June, 18 65, at Fort Richardson VA by reason of Close of War."

My ancestor, Benjamin Heald, emigrated from Carlisle, Massachusetts to lands along the Nezinscot River in what would become the town of Sumner, Oxford County, Maine, in 1784. Benjamin's son, Hiram, married Sophronia Hersey in 1824. They had eleven children, three girls and eight boys. Of the eight boys, six would serve in the Union army, among them my aforementioned great-great grandfather Lysander. Two younger brothers of Lysander died during the war: Benjamin Franklin (known as "Frank") and James. It was these later two sons of Hiram and Sophronia of whom I wrote in my 2003 history.

As I eventually discovered, in the absence of letters, diaries, or other personal documentation, it was difficult to write a satisfactory history. I relied almost entirely on "second hand" material, whether of Sumner history, regimental histories, and the like. Bumping up against these limitations, and having come to the end of my sabbatical, I abandoned the project, leaving a seriously ill James left behind in camp as the Union army hastily withdrew from its position at Savage's Station during the Peninsular Campaign in 1862. As we shall see, he was taken by the Confederates and transported to a prison in Richmond.

Over the years, usually in the spring or late autumn, it has become my custom to visit the graves of Frank and James and my other ancestors now buried in the Sumner Hill cemetery. The cemetery is well tended and the headstones are undamaged. I've had contact with the present owners of the old Heald farmhouse down below the cemetery and they have offered to watch over the graves and make sure that all is in good order.

Over the next few posts, as we lead up to the observance of Memorial Day and beyond, I'll share some of what I wrote back in '03. I will begin with a daguerreotype and a November visit to the Sumner Hill cemetery.

(Photo: Lysander, son Arthur Clifton (A.C), and his son, either Charles or Stanley, at the Heald Homestead; Sumner, ME; 1902 (?))

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I Am the Man

July of 2005 marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of the first edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. In my last two posts, I have offered excerpts from his elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd. But Whitman was much more than a great bardic seer; he was a lover of all and embodied a radically inclusive and all-embracing vision expressed not only through his poetry but, during the Civil War, through his ministry to the sick and dying soldiers in the Washington hospitals.

From February, 1863 to after the close of the war in 1865, Whitman tirelessly walked through the hospital wards stopping by the iron cots of the soldiers, offering little gifts from out of his haversack--oranges and apples, strawberry jam, oysters, pickles, plugs of tobacco, stationary, stamps, pens and pencils--or simply sat by their bedside, writing letters home for them, touching and soothing them, keeping long vigil with the dying, often through the night. His flexible hours as a clerk in the Paymaster's Office and in other government agencies allowed him to go to the hospitals several hours every day. It has been estimated that he made some six hundred visits in three years.

The suffering Whitman witnessed was on a scale unparalleled in American history--the sights of the dismembered, ailing soldiers, the smells of putrefying wounds, the sound of the irrepressible groans or screams sounding through the wards, was his daily bread. "These thousands, and tens and twenties of thousands of American young men," he wrote, "badly wounded, all sorts of wounds, operated on, pallid with diarrhea, languishing, dying with fever, pneumonia..." Often he would put himself, as he wrote, "in fancy in the cot, with typhoid, or under the knife." He was making good on the prophetic verses he had written in his collection Leaves of Grass some seven years earlier:

Not a cholera patient lies at the last gasp, but I also lie at the last gasp.
My face is ash-colored, my sinews gnarl...
I am the man...I suffered...I was there.

And later, he describes his actual experience of walking among the men in the wards in his poem The Wound-Dresser:

To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, nor one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill'd with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill'd again.

I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young.
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad.
(many a soldier's loving arms about this neck have cross'd and rested,
Many a soldier's kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)

He kept a notebook with him on his visits, recording the soldier's names, the nature of their wounds and illnesses, and what they asked of him. His scribbled notes almost take on the character of a poetic utterance, his staccato lists not unlike those found in Leaves of Grass:

Chester H. Lilly (Bed 6) 145th Penn down with Erysipelas and jaundice also wounded/wants some preserve or jelly...shirt and drawers for J.H Culver Ward G bed 24...Albert Maurier co. B 55th Ohio amputated left leg--toothbrush...J.W. Smith co. G 25th Ohio comp [lications] from right thigh also some fever/ some fruit (strawberries or sweet peaches)...Corp. Justus F. Boyd bed 22 co. D 6th Michigan cavalry been infive months, four sick, affection [infection] of kidneys and pleurisy--wants some paper and envelope and something to read...

Whitman's magnetic presence was powerfully healing, soothing, humanizing--he held the hand of some, others he would read aloud to, "while others asked him to write a parent, sister, or lover. Some, wounded in wrist or shoulder, liked to have Whitman feed them, others asked for a cooling drink. He would go around a ward from cot to cot with a jar of raspberry preserves in one hand and a spoon in the other, offering sweet stuff to all takers." (Epstein, Daniel Mark; Whitman and Lincoln

He was not unaware of the influence he was having. He wrote: "My profoundest help to these sick and dying men is probably the soothing invigoration I steadily bear in mind, to infuse in them through affection, cheering love, [and] the like, between them and me. It has saved more than one life. There is a strange influence here."

(Photo: Washington hospital; Google Image)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Solitary, the Thrush

At dusk last Saturday evening, Sukie and I, accompanied by our dog Digory, went for a walk in the woods of the neighboring estate. It had begun to rain lightly and the forest was shrouded in a fog that had come ashore later that afternoon. Through the mist, not far off, we heard the ethereal, flutelike song of the hermit thrush as it perched on some low-lying branch. Further off, we could hear the teach'er, teach'er, teach'er of an ovenbird's song building in crescendo.

In When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, his elegy on the death of Abraham LincolnWalt Whitman uses the hermit thrush as one of a trinity of core symbols. A notebook entry of 1865 suggests the significance of the thrush: "Solitary thrush...sings oftener after sundown sometimes quite in the night/is very secluded/ likes shaded dark places in swamps...his song is a hymn...he never sings near the farm houses--never in the settlement/ the bird of solemn primal woods and of Nature pure and holy."

A creature of "nature pure and holy," the hermit thrush expresses itself in song, and thus has been considered a figure of the bardic poet or the seer, a visionary singer of ultimate insight. In section 4 of Lilacs, Whitman introduces the thrush:

In the swamp, in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.

Solitary, the thrush,
The hermit, withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.

Song of the bleeding throat!
Death's outlet song of life--(for well, dear brother, I know,
If thou wast not gifted to sing, thou would'st surely die.)

(From from Google Image)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

With Every Leaf a Miracle

The lilacs in our front yard are just beginning to bloom, although most of the deep purple buds are still tightly closed. As I press my nose to the burgeoning blossoms, there is the merest tantalizing whiff of scent. The "heart-shaped leaves of rich green" are now lush and cover what were bare branches not long ago.

Last spring, I endeavored to memorize Whitman's great elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom'd. The 1865 version of the poem consists of twenty-one sections of several stanzas each. Over two and a half months, I managed to memorize seven sections.

It is impossible adequately to express what this poem means to me. It encompasses so much of what I love--Walt Whitman, bard and passionate lover of all; Abraham Lincoln, my great hero since earliest childhood and an ongoing subject of study; the lilac, ancient shrub of exquisite scent known to me since early boyhood; spring, when new life emerges so sensuously and extravagantly; the hermit thrush, whose ethereal song evokes an earthy spirituality; the elegy, that artistic form of grief and longing; death, its mystery and allure ever captivating.

Here is Whitman's mesmerizing ode to death at the heart of Lilacs:

Come, lovely and soothing Death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later, delicate Death.

Prais'd be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious;
And for love, sweet love -- But praise! O praise and praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding Death.

Dark mother, always gliding near, with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?
Then I chant it for thee--I glorify thee above all;
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come 

Approach, encompassing Death-- strong Deliveress!
When it is so--when you have taken them, I joyously sing
            the dead,
Lost in the loving floating ocean of thee,
Laved in the flood of thy bliss, O Death.

From me to thee glad serenades,
Dances for thee I propose, saluting thee-- adornments and 
             feastings for thee,
And the sights of the open landscape, and the high-spread 
            sky, are fitting,
And life and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night.

The night, in silence, under many a star;
The ocean shore, and the husky whispering wave, whose
             voice I know,
And the soul turning to thee, O vast and well-veil'd Death,
And the body gratefully nestling close to thee.

Over the treetops I float thee a song!
Over the rising and sinking waves-- over the myriad fields,
             and the prairies wide;
Over the dense-pack'd cities all, and the teeming wharves
            and ways,
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee O Death!

(Photo from Google Image)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Journey-work of the Stars

He sat in his wheelchair in front of the computer screen, intently gazing at the brightly colored images before him. A retired space engineer, he is now a hospice patient residing at a local long-term care facility. Only able to speak haltingly and with few words, his frustration is palpable as he seeks to give voice to his brilliant mind. I know that he can't be rushed; that he requires a patient, attentive listening presence, and that given sufficient space, he will share what is on his mind.

This week the space shuttle Atlantis docked with the Hubble Space Telescope to replace its batteries and gyroscopes, install two cameras and attempt to repair two broken science instruments. I shared this news with my patient and watched as he became visibly excited, his eyes widening. 

It was then that I wheeled him over to the computer and googled images of deep space captured by the Hubble. He uttered exclamations of awe and delight as I pulled up one image after another--star clusters, spiral galaxies and supernova remnants. For a few moments his frustration was gone and he was alert and attentive with every fiber of his being.

In his blog Science Musings, Chet Raymo, professor emeritus of astronomy and physics at Stonehill College, writes of this sense of awe opened up by the incomprehensibly vast infinitude of space. His conclusion draws us to celebrate the gift of the close-at-hand:

As I calculate it, it would take 16 million Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photographs to cover the entire celestial sphere. At 10,000 galaxies per photograph, we are talking 160 billion galaxies that the same application of technology might potentially reveal.

What I find most astonishing is that a big bus-sized telescope floating in space can be precisely pointed at such a tiny part of the sky during 400 orbits of the Earth. Makes me proud to be part of a species that can pull off such a feat -- a species that includes everyone from the chief project designer to the machinist who cuts widget no. 35, 347.

Having taken aboard a universe of 160 billion galaxies, how would I answer the BIG questions?

Who am I? With Whitman I say: I am the journey-work of stars.

Where did I come from? I am the product of 13.7 billion years of cosmic evolution.

Why am I here? The universe is silent. Each of us must decide for oneself. Some of us choose to take our answer from popes, televangelists, ayatollahs, or holy books. For myself: I am here to pay attention and to celebrate what I see.

And I didn't need the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photograph to come to these conclusions. With Whitman: "...the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren..."

(From Science Musings; February 11,2006; Google Image Photo: Orion Nebula from Hubble Telescope)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Long-Lost Home

In preparing for a workshop this weekend I'm calling Zen Gifts for Christians, I came across this favorite quote from Peter Matthiessen:

Zen has been called “the religion before religion,” which is to say that anyone can practice, even those committed to another faith. And the phrase evokes that natural religion of our early childhood, when heaven and a splendorous earth were one. For the new child in the light of spring, there is no self to forget; the eye with which he sees God, in Meister Eckhart’s phrase, is the eye with which God sees him. But that clear eye is soon clouded over by ideas and opinions, preconceptions and abstractions, and simple being becomes encrusted with the armor of ego. Not until years later does an instinct come that a vital sense of mystery has been withdrawn. The sun glints through the pines, and the heart is pierced in a moment of beauty and strange pain, like a memory of paradise…. That day we become seekers without knowing that we seek, and at first, we long for something “greater” than ourselves, something far away. It is not a return to childhood, for childhood is not a truly enlightened state; yet to seek one’s own true nature is, as one Zen master has said, “a way to lead you to your long-lost home." 

(From the Foreword to Zen Meditation in Plain English; John Daishin Buksbazen; Wisdom Publications)

(DSH Photo: Early Morning Light; 2007)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

First Crew Race

The summer before my freshman year at Boston University, I received a recruiting letter from the head coach of the crew team. Apparently, I was the right height and weight for their heavyweight freshman boat. Little did he know what poor shape I was in, having spent the previous four years of high school studiously avoiding sports of any kind, preferring instead to hang-out with my hippie friends in the school's art studio. The jocks on campus called me "magilla gorilla," after the corpulent protaganist of the animated series by the same name, who spent hours languishing in the window of Mr. Peeble's pet store eating bananas.

Anyway, rowing on the Charles River sounded cool, so I gave it a try. Little did I know what was in store for me. Working out on the river, indoors on the ergometer, and spending the winters lifting weights and running stairs, the later exercise with twenty pounds of sand sealed in an old halved rubber inner tube draped on my shoulders, I got in shape real fast. I subsequently transferred to Amherst College in my sophomore year and spent three more years rowing, earning my varsity letter. 

Imagine how delighted and proud I was when my daughter Anna, a sophomore at the Waynflete School in Portland, rowed in her first crew race yesterday. When she rowed away in her novice four to the starting line, tears came to my eyes.

So what if Waynflete came in next to last? They hung in there throughout the race, despite the stroke catching a crab in the first 100 meters. Anna was a happy girl when she got out of the boat and hoisted it up to her shoulders, walking it back to the rear with her teammates. Afterwards, I gave her a big hug and told her what a great job she did.

There's a rowing club around here somewhere, isn't there? Maybe it's time to get back in a boat myself. 

(DSH Photo: Anna, Meghan, and Hannah before the race; Amoskeag Rowing Club, Hooksett, NH; May 9, 2009)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Story of My Love

All that a man has to say or do that can possibly concern mankind, is in some shape or other to tell the story of his love,--to sing; and, if he is fortunate and keeps alive, he will be forever in love. Thoreau's Journal 6 May 1854 (From The Blog of Henry David Thoreau)

To tell the story of my love. This is my Great Commandment. To love God is to love what I love with utter abandon. To love God in all that I love. Even more--to love God as all that I love. This sound of rain on my windowpane. This cardinal singing at dawn. This human being before me grieving over the loss of a loved one. How could it be otherwise? To have it any other way is to love God in the abstract.

I trust that this blog is all about telling the story of my love. In no other way can it be of concern to you, my readers.

(DSH Photo: Workshop Flowers: July, 2005)

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Road goes ever on and on

Glendalough (Gleann Dá Loch, “Valley of the Two Lakes”) is an ancient monastic settlement in a spectacular natural setting just an hour south of Dublin. The monastery was founded by St. Kevin, a hermit monk who died about 618 AD. The extensive ruins of Glendalough include several early churches, a graceful round tower, and various sites associated with the life of St. Kevin.

In the photo, Bekah, Sukie and Anna walk to the Upper Lake where the foundation of St. Kevin's cell is located. (Anna is now taller than her mother and her sister.) The title of the post comes from J.R.R Tolkien. A song originally composed by Bilbo Baggins, it appears in the Hobbit and in other versions in the Lord of the Rings.

(DSH Photo: Bekah, Sukie, and Anna at Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, Ireland; April, 2003)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Holy Well

Sukie and I are approaching the fourth anniversary of an impromptu trip to Ireland in May of 2005. By "impromptu," I mean that three or four weeks before we departed, this journey had not been contemplated. At least not by me. As it turned out, Sukie had been working diligently behind the scene.  

One afternoon, while the girls were still at school, she presented  me with a document entitled "A Modest Proposal."  She read it aloud, requesting that I not comment until she had finished. She had carefully outlined a five day getaway to the west coast of Ireland, specifically to the Burren in County Clare. We had visited the area with the girls in 2003, while on sabbatical from St. Bart's.

On the surface, Sukie's proposal was proposterous. Without prior planning, we were to drop our parish work for a week. She had asked a neighbor, only hours home from college, to stay with the girls. Fortunately for us, she was both available and willing. And then there was the little detail of how it was all going to be paid for. But in my heart, I knew her proposal was sound in a way that transcended practical considerations.

The past year had been challenging. We were both struggling vocationally and our passion for parish ministry was fast waning. One of my parishioners advised me to read William Styron's book Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, thinking that I was clinically depressed. Another parishioner was unhappy (to say the least) that I had not enthusiastically endorsed her desire to be ordained. She felt no reluctance about letting me know, and everyone else, of her disgruntlement. My relationship with my beloved organist and choir director was under strain, as there had been considerable miscommunication over politically sensitive parish issues. Sukie's and my marriage was suffocating under the weight of a job that we had shared for over fourteen years.

We landed at Shannon airport on Thursday, May 19th. Our destination was the Burren Oaks Farm Accommodation. Burren means "stony place" and refers to the roughly 150 square miles of bare carboniferous limestone mountains and sheltered valleys of pasture land along Galway Bay.

Just a short walk to the west from our B+B was the 12th century Cistercian foundation Sancta Maria de Petra Fertilis--St. Mary of the Fertile Rock-- familiarly known as Corcomroe Abbey. And down a long farm lane to the southeast, in the midst of a verdant valley nestled between Oughtmama and Turlough Hills, the ancient ruins of the three Oughtmama Churches (1000 CE)--once a monastic enclosure with evidence of a village nearby-- stood among hazel shrubs. From the slopes of the surrounding hills, one could see out, past the ruins of the Abbey, to the blue ocean of Ballyvaughan Bay

We awoke early the next morning and went in search of the churches, which we at last discovered, having traversed several walled muddy fields adorned with cow patties. One of the fields I crossed was inhabited by a surly bull that, to my imminent peril, I discovered only at the last minute. Other more docile cattle grazed just outside the extensive ruins, these well preserved buildings far flung from any human habitation. A locked gate barred the way from entering the sanctuary of the largest church. 

In asking our hosts about the Oughtmama Churches, we discovered that Mike owned and farmed the land on which the churches stood. He had a key to the sanctuary gate and offered it to us. We returned to the churches several times over the next few days and, as far afield as we went in our explorations of the Burren, that quiet green valley was the heart of what became much more than a casual trip to Ireland. In a deeper sense, it was a sacred journey, a pilgrimage.

On our last day, we scheduled a walk with John Connolly of Burren Wild Walking Tours. John's farmhouse was just down the road from our accommodation and we walked out his backdoor to the foot of Oughtmama Hill. John was a young man, physically tough but also bright and well spoken, with values other than "worshipping the Almighty Euro." Having grown up Roman Catholic, he had not practiced in many years. And yet, he had an innate sense of spirituality and was intrigued that Sukie and I were both clergy.

As we climbed the hill, he pointed out evidence of the "lazy beds"--potato beds planted during the mid-19th century famine in hopes of escaping the potato blight down in the valleys. He noted many cairns erected by the British as aids to surveying the area and the many stonewalls built by the poor during the famine. (The walls themselves served no purpose other than to keep the destitute employed, as the mountain grazing of cattle was communal.) He showed us traces of a horseshoe shaped trough of burnt stones. It was a bronze age cooking site--fulacht fian in Gaelic.

As we walked, we shared our stories with John. He listened attentively. Picking up on my unease about work, he asked: "Are you happy with the choice you made for your life?" I was astounded that he had seen into my soul so quickly.

Finally, John brought us to a holy well on the western slope of Oughtmama Hill--Tobar Colman--named after St. Colman Mac Duagh (550-632CE), a monastic who, having lived in a cave as a hermit for many years, settled Kilmacduagh, a monastery with a now famous leaning round tower. John said that the well had healing properties, especially for poor eyesight. A gnarled ash tree--daily buffeted by the winds off the bay-- stood by the open well marked by a stone enclosure amongst dense hawthorne shrubs.

Sukie stepped down into the well and paused for a moment, cupping the fresh clear water in her hands and dousing her face. I held back, reluctant to do the same, my rational self wanting no truck with the "miraculous." Leaning on his walking stick, John quietly gazed my way and said: "You've got to have faith."

I stepped down into the cool moss covered enclosure of the well and washed my face.

My eyesight has actually grown much worse over the intervening years from our trip to Ireland down to the present. But the grace of the vision with which I was blessed at the holy well on the slopes overlooking that verdant valley has stayed with me. We left St. Bart's six months later, not knowing what might befall us. 

We leapt into the unknown, relying on faith alone.

(DSH Photo: Oughtmama Church, Bell Harbour, Co. Clare, Ireland; May, 2005)

Saturday, May 2, 2009

A Rare Sighting

I'm just back from a Saturday morning birdwalk with Derek Lovitch who, with his wife Jeanette, are proprietors of the Freeport Wild Bird Supply. A large group of us gathered at 8AM and went over to the Bayview Estuary Preserve in Yarmouth. The preserve encompasses thirty-five acres of undeveloped land along the Royal River, including one-half mile of river frontage, forested uplands, and salt and freshwater wetlands. 

Surveying the marsh along the river front, Derek spotted what he presumed to be a Marbled Godwit, an exceptionally rare sighting in the spring along the coast of Maine. He sent one of the group to fetch his spotting scope from the car, as Derek wondered whether the bird might even be a Bar-tailed Godwit, an even greater rarity, perhaps even a Maine record. The bird flew across the river and settled on the mudflat on the far shore to feed among several Greater Yellowlegs. On closer examination, Derek confirmed that it was the Marbled Godwit.

For many, if not most in the group, it was a life bird. As I refer now to my nifty Cornell Laboratory Of Ornithology Birder's Life List and Diary, I note that I have not previously seen the Marbled Godwit. (I saw its cousin, the Hudsonian Godwit, at the Parker National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island in July of 1989.) So it's a life bird for me as well!

A large shorebird with a long, upturned two-toned bill, the Marbled Godwit breeds in the northern prairies and winters along the coasts. We lined up at Derek's scope, waiting for a better look at the bird. Satisfied that we had all had a good look, we moved on up into the woods and along the freshwater pond where we saw several species of warblers: Black-and- white, Yellow-rumped, Palm, Black-throated Green, and Ovenbird. The usual suspects--Red-breated Nuthatch, White-breasted Nuthatch, Titmouse, Chickadee, Hairy Woodpecker, Goldfinch, Purple Finch--were all out in great abundance. Tree swallows dove for insects as they cruised along the marsh. Red-winged blackbirds kept sentinel on fenceposts by the river front. We could hear a Kingfisher "rattling" in the distance. And an added treat: nine painted turtles sunny themselves on a log in the pond.

(Photo from Google Image. Not this morning's bird.)