The Woman at the Cross

The Woman at the Cross

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Earlier today, my lifelong friend Kelly shared the following on Facebook:

You know how the Mona Lisa is so intriguing because there are all sorts of ways to interpret her smile? I encountered something this morning that evoked that same feeling in me, making me wish I could have snapped a picture of it: I saw a middle-aged woman overlooking a darkened chapel At Stella Maris. She had her back to me so I couldn’t see her expression. She was leaning against the entry door with her head cockeyed in such a way that her head rested on the door frame. She stood there just staring at the altar. Was she looking for a buoy to help her? Was she in awe of God’s mercy? Was she just resigned to the sad fact that all life ends? Hard to say.

I was so taken aback by its description that my mind was creating a thousand different scenarios for her being there. I think Kelly did a great job of “painting” a picture with her words, and so I created the image above to help guide me in my response, which is below.

A huge shout out to Kelly for taking the time to share this observation with all of us. As an artist and writer, I was grateful for the connection I made with her words. Enjoy…

The Woman at the Cross: My Response to Kelly

The older altar boy looks on from the entrance of the Tabernacle, and he sees a woman old enough to be his mother. She lowers her head toward the cross. He sees disappointment, as if she feels failure in how she is raising her only son. He rubs the edges of his sleeves with his fingers, a nervous habit he developed when he was younger. It was just another thing he did “wrong” when he would endure the lectures for stealing food from Parkers, or lifting a few cigarettes from her pack of menthols that she kept in her replica Bottega Veneta handbag. He remembers the night her sobbing woke him just before dawn, and when he went downstairs to see if she was okay, he stopped on the third step from the landing, looking at his broken mother, rosary beads laced through her fingers, praying for something, anything to make him a better boy.

When she died later that month from the cancer that consumed most of her organs, he laced the same beads around his own fingers, vowing to do right, vowing to honor her prayers.

He wants to console her, tell her that it’s going to be okay. Everything’s going to work out the way she wants it. He remains in the doorway, though, and lowers his own head as he makes the sign of the cross. “Oh, Lord, for the moms who are hurting today, hear my prayer….”

From the other side of the altar, the young musician restrings her guitar in preparation for the 5:30 mass. She notices the older woman leaning against the wall, head bowed toward the cross, and she smiles. She remembers when she was younger, a “basic” singer/songwriter still trying to find her voice. How she would lean into the sacred space of the cross, pray for musical divination, and vow to keep the creative channels open as she continued to play morning, noon, and night. It wasn’t until her third year strumming a set of new nylon strings when it hit her: it was time to stop playing covers and replicating everyone else’s sound. It was time to write her notes, and her lyrics, and her arrangements.

Soon, she would put her restrung guitar into the simple stand by mic number 3, and lean into the sacred space, praying for continued musical divination, channeling God’s message through C chords played a few frets south of the nut. The musician smiles as she watches her whisper the Lord’s Prayer. Later she will watch her from the stage as she sings along among the others in the congregation. Their eyes will catch for the first time, but that’s all it will take for them to understand the mutual love they share for the Trinity. Heads bowed, prayers whispered, notes played, words sung. The Universal love for Christ knows no boundaries.

From the back of the church, Father Rossi prays for the woman at the cross. He has known her since her baptism. He remembers her reverential fear in her first communion, her shaky but certain voice as she shared her vows at that same altar, the cold, clammy touch of her hand as they prayed before her husband’s funeral, and her muted gratitude 7 weeks later at her own son’s baptism. Today, Father Rossi knows that she prays not just for strength to carry on another day, but she prays as well for strength for her son, now five. She prays for those who have lost their spouse. She prays for divine guidance to lead her where she is needed the most. She prays for her husband, for the altar boy by the Tabernacle, for the singer/songwriter on the stage. Father Rossi knows of her struggles, but he also knows of her strengths through God. Most importantly, he knows of her faith and gratitude in these gifts of strength. She is unique, and she is no different from any of his other parishioners. She has known love, and loss, and hope, and grief.

He knows these are the people of his parish. Unique, struggling, and strengthened through Christ.

The altar boy begins to light the prayer candles, and the woman in prayer makes the sign of the cross, genuflecting before she rises once more and heads to the back of the church.

“Thank you, Father,” she says, and he just smiles.

She grins, walks on, and carries the prayers on the cross with her as she passes through the threshold and enters the world a little more protected, a little more forgiving.

Behold: The power of prayer.

Challenger: 73 Seconds Define 30 Years

Challenger: 73 Seconds Define 30 Years

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 10.42.07 AM Dateline – Tuesday, 28 January 1986. 11:35 a.m.

I’m upstairs in my bedroom, cramming the last of my new textbooks in my bag, grabbing a few extra pens and my journal, and checking my look in the mirror: clean-shaven, every single hair gelled in place, and wearing a white oxford with a blue Hugo Boss cardigan sweater. I smile at myself, fighting the need to wear a jacket in the cold January weather. I am beginning my second semester of junior year: an English major with an education minor. This semester feels just the opposite, though, as I am taking classes like Principles of Secondary Education and Teaching Reading in the Secondary Classroom. I am so happy to be immersed in my major courses as I try to look like the teacher I can’t wait to be.

I rush downstairs just in time to catch the liftoff of the most important space launch of my lifetime. Teacher Christa McCauliffe, designated a payload specialist, has joined the flight team of commander Dick Scobee, pilot Mike Smith, mission specialists Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Judy Resnik; and a second payload specialist, Greg Jarvis.

At 11:37 a.m., I look at my Mickey Mouse watch. I don’t have to be on campus until 1 p.m., but parking will be a challenge, as usual, so I will need to head out as soon as the space shuttle disappears from the camera’s eye and is swallowed by space.

Dad is in his chair to the left of the television, as he always is when he’s not at the firehouse. I am so thankful that this is his last year before he retires. He hasn’t looked himself lately.

At 11:38 a.m. I sit on the edge of the couch and watch the liftoff, a brilliant burst of light and fire propelling this team of seven into the skies. The energy that it takes, I think, to lift such a machine into the heavens, just so that it can carry on its mission in weightlessness.

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Three seconds into ignition, the Public Affairs Officer announces on NASA TV: “Liftoff of the 25th space shuttle mission, and it has cleared the tower.”

I have been following Christa McCauliffe’s story for months, where her energy to teach mingles with the lessons I am learning in my courses at Towson. While others are lifting superheroes or movie stars as their idols, I am lifting this 37-year-old teacher from Concord, New Hampshire who is paving a path for all of us in what it means to teach, what it means to “touch the future.”

Twenty-eight seconds, pilot Mike Smith says: “There’s ten thousand feet and Mach point five.”

I watch the bright light arc right, bend to the heavens, on the ultimate teaching mission. I can’t help but see and feel the parallels in my own life. This time next year, I think, I will be in the classroom as a student teacher, realizing a dream to work with others since I was in high school. From my days in elementary classrooms through my senior year, I had the best role models to show me what teaching was all about: Green, Gordon, Bennett, Delaney; then Crouse, Falcone, and DeVita. They had been human, loving, nurturing, guiding in those first 12 years of school. There, as I watch McAuliffe climb higher and higher in the shuttle, piercing the blue and leaving behind a single stream of white, I feel the immediate urge to teach stir within me. This is going to be the best semester yet.

Sixty-eight seconds, CAPCOM, or the Capsule Communicator, says: “Challenger, go at throttle up.”

Dad and I are silent. We are captured by the beauty of the launch on this clear blue Tuesday morning as we watch Challenger roll right.

Seventy seconds, Commander Dick Scobee replies: “Roger, go at throttle up.”

We watch as CNN zooms into the Shuttle. I feel so close to it on the television. We are with the crew of seven, we are flying with teacher Christa McCauliffe for the most magnificent teachable moments imaginable.

Then, at seventy-three seconds, that single stream of white explodes, and two rocket boosters fly to the left and right, leaving a chalice of smoke in the silence of the broadcast.

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Thirty-one seconds after the explosion, a somber voice from the Command Center says: “Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.”

The silence between my father and me changes, shifts from the incredible to the incredulous. We are unsure what has happened, as CNN channels through its camera shots from white-lined skies to crowds of shocked onlookers, some of them Christa’s family. They are holding on to each other. They are holding on to hope.

I look at my watch and the time has somehow slipped away. Minutes have ticked away like seconds, and it is already after 12 p.m. I have to leave. Head to school. Learn what I can to be a good teacher.

But what I realize on the drive to Towson is that what I need to learn to Touch The Future is already in me, thanks to the Christa McCauliffes who have shown me what it means to hold such responsibility, such opportunity to empower others to embrace learning, to let them know that there are no limits to how far they can go.

Seventy-three seconds crystallized that for me for those 30 years that would follow. I vowed then, at 20 years old, to always remember what Green, Gordon, Bennett, Delaney, DeVita, Crouse, Falcone, and now McCauliffe had taught me: no matter the challenges we might face, never lose the energy to empower the young, never abandon the belief in the individual futures that breathe life into our classrooms.

Seventy-three seconds made me who I am today. Though my cardigan might now be a little worn, I will always carry with me the energy of my mentors and Christa McAuliffe’s words, “I touch the future; I teach.”

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Dream On

Dream On

When I was 7 or 8, my brother, 19 years my elder, moved back into our house after he separated with his wife, and we shared the narrow attic bedroom space. That must have been weird for him, as he had spent his entire childhood up there with our other two brothers, who were much closer in age with him.

There we were, oldest and youngest, first and last, alpha and omega. We were the bookends of our parents’ efforts in building a big family.

Every morning, about 30 minutes or so before I would need to get up for school, Warren’s radio clock alarm would go off. He had it set to WLPL, 92.3 FM, a station I had come to love for the next decade for its cutting-edge rock that we now listen to on classic rock stations like 100.7 The Bay. My days and nights were filled with Zeppelin, Hendrix, Eagles, Elton John, Heart, and Fleetwood Mac, to name just a few.

But on those mornings when his rock-and-roll clock would tick-tock click to that moment when we would both be awakened, Aerosmith played, “Dream On.”

Every. Single. Morning.

Warren would stir, grumble a bit to himself, then roll out of bed and trudge downstairs to our one and only bathroom. A few minutes later, I would hear the front door open and close, his motorcycle come to life, and then the roar that followed, then faded, as he headed off to wherever big brothers work when they have just separated from their wives.

In my head, among the grumbles and the roars of everything that made my big brother larger than life, I continued to hum the Aerosmith tune as I lay in bed, Dreaming On to a time when I would get big. And grumble. And roar.

Every time when I look in the mirror
All these lines on my face getting clearer
The past is gone
It went by, like dusk to dawn
Isn’t that the way
Everybody’s got the dues in life to pay

So here we are: four decades later. As I write on, “Dream On” plays over and over through my earbuds, into my head, along my veins, and within my heart and brain, a reverberation of love and nostalgia that seem to cancel out each other.

My brother is now dead. He no longer grumbles, roars, or dreams on. I am left with a residual, fading echo of a man I yearned to be.

warren dugout

And I would think that I would be desperate to hold on to each note of this song, each lub-dub-dub of his cycle, each synchronous wink-and-smile that he would give me, you, a stranger to let you know: “I hear you. You aren’t alone. It’s going to be okay.”

Yes. I would think just that. But it isn’t happening.

Half my life
Is books, written pages
Live and learn from fools and
From sages
You know it’s true, oh
All these feelings come back to you

So instead I try to name that narrow space that exists between love and nostalgia; I try to box it into a nice little corner where I can name it. Identify it. Label it and reduce its hold over me so I can move on and dream on (and dream on and dream on) so that my dreams might come true.

All I can find, though, is something I barely recognize as an emotion caught in the ugly balance between depression and acceptance. The clouds are heavy, you see, but I just can’t tell if they are filled with the humid rains or the sun-drenched rays.

Sing with me, sing for the years
Sing for the laughter, sing for the tears
Sing with me, just for today
Maybe tomorrow, the good Lord will take you away

Here’s what I do know tonight. My brother’s synchronous wink-and-smile is getting me through. It reminds me that I am not alone, that so many of us are struggling with this new and uncomfortable feeling of loss, and that we’re going to be okay.

Throw that all together, and maybe that’s why the rains aren’t falling, but the sun’s rays aren’t getting through the clouds either. It’s this gray existence of understanding, of perspective, even of peace in knowing that, maybe tomorrow, the good Lord will indeed take us away.

But for now, we are here. And with this dream that carries on, we persevere, we find the strength between winks and smiles, and we carry each other as best we can.

We carry each other through the laughter, through the tears, through the early-morning songs that play on and on in our later years.

Yeah. Through the grumbles of thunder and the roars of silent rains and rays, I hear you. We’re not alone. And we’re going to be okay.

In fact, I think we already are.

sunset rvw

There Is Always A Clearing

There Is Always A Clearing

DSC_8498There Is Always A Clearing.

There is always a clearing.
I discovered this long after you had passed,
Where, in the absence of light I imagined the night
Opening its pitch-black door just right– ajar
For eyes like mine that yearned for hope, promise,
Love.
And there you were — are still to this same night,
Where we wait to watch the meteors light the sky
For those who yearn to see the light,
Believe in the clearing (there is always a clearing)
That kindles promises bright.

14 Hours In Light: Part 6. The Final Ascent and Facing The Final Fear

14 Hours In Light: Part 6. The Final Ascent and Facing The Final Fear
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photos by rus vanwestervelt and madelyn vanwestervelt. taken 30 july 2015

Part 6. The Final Ascent and Facing The Final Fear

Braeden decides to join us at the last minute, and he and Madelyn lead the way to the top of the hill. Their energy is boundless, and Rob and I take our time making the steep climb. The sun still seems high in the sky, but the crash into the mountains is inevitable. We maintain a good pace.

Already, though, through the clearings in the trees, we are treated to a beautiful show as the sun makes its descent.

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During these breaks, Rob and I pause, unsure if our breaths are being taken away by the view or the climb. We look to the west and dare not blink, as the clouds and the light continue to shift like watercolors absorbed by the most natural vellum. We are not the artists, though; it is our pleasure and our honor to observe, to be the witnesses of such beautiful art.

We resume our climb, and when we reach the top, Braeden and Madelyn are walking around the mechanisms of the old ski lift.

“Can we get in one of the baskets?” Braeden asks. I shake my head, and he doesn’t argue. Instead, he runs to the little office shack and peeks inside. Two office chairs are pushed against the wall, and old magazines and food wrappers litter both the desk top and the floor.

“Creepy,” he says. “It’s like they all just vanished in the middle of whatever they were doing.”

I tell him places like these are breeding grounds for ghost stories and mysteries, and I can see the creative wheels churning in his head, moving ideas and images around to form a possible new story.

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Madelyn leaves us and finds her place in the field to watch the sun set. She is as much a part of this landscape as the mountains themselves, and seeing her in the field, focused intently on the show that is playing out before us, allows me to remember how we separate ourselves from our natural land. We build walls, cities, and structures that “protect” us from the elements; we see land and nature as something to be tamed, domesticated to fit our needs, to reduce to names and distinctions, boundaries and property lines, as if we ever had the right to claim any of it as our own.

This morning, I reflected on the beauty of the land itself, the push-pull, yin-yang nature of life outside of the human experience. But here, seeing Madelyn so assimilated with these natural surroundings and her so comfortably immersed in them, I realize that we grow away from our natural environment. We spend our years “getting and spending,” as Wordsworth writes.

We need to return to such innocence, where we were once this close to the earth. We need to find our place in our field and bond once more to this great Earth.

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As Braeden continues to explore, Rob and I remain speechless as the sun begins to fall at a faster pace. We know this is impossible, but as it approaches the tips of the mountain ridges, it seems to be pulled from the sky against its will. We mutter something about appreciating life, taking nothing for granted, wishing Cindy and the others were with us. All of this is a feeble attempt, though, to capture the ineffable moments that we are all sharing. We do our best to put in to words what we are feeling, but when you are a witness to such beauty, words fail.

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We stand in silence and watch the sun disappear.

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The speed with which it sinks now makes me panic. I feel the fear swelling inside. I want to run across the field and somehow pull it back up, slow the process down, but I am helpless to its falling. I don’t want the sun to go down. I know I cannot be some “catcher in the rye” who saves it from sinking, but the fear is so real, so strong for the symbolic fall of all of us.

I look at my daughter and son, who are now silhouettes against the red sky. I see how tall they are getting, how, as they enter this middle phase of what it means to be a kid, stuck somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, I want them to treasure these moments more, cherish their place in the earth, see the worth of the natural world around them, and grow up immersed in infinite energy, love, faith, and service.

I want them to know these things and keep them close, wherever they go, whatever they do. But how can I stop them from growing up and growing away from such beauty?

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Madelyn turns around and she gives me the answer, the assurance without saying a single word. She is the one who pushed to be on this hill. She is the one who wanted to witness this sunset. She is the one who led the way to this sacred space, 5,000 feet in the air.

My fear disappears like the sun itself, as I realize that the energy, love, faith, and service I wish my children to feel and to own is here, and it has just touched them both. The spiritual relationship we have with the earth is so deeply personal, as my own experience 14 hours earlier proved to be. No friend, no parent, no mentor could have led me to such a moment.

And so it remains. Our ventures into the wilderness will continue with plenty of opportunities and space to connect, both as a family and individually, with our natural environment. We hold closely to these sunrises, these white-blazed walks, these sunsets as we journey onward in our day-to-day lives, knowing that the deepest connections made with the Earth are all we ever need to sustain us when the light might dim in our lives.

Like the falling moon or the rising sun, we keep our faith. We will get through, and light is always but a few hours away, for each and every one of us.

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During the last week of July, we were fortunate enough to join my sister and her family at their mountain cabin in western North Carolina. It was the first time that our family had been together in six years, and the first time I had seen my sister since she lost her left leg in her battle with osteosarcoma.

In the pre-dawn hours of July 30, I wrestled with the decision to hike to the summit of Big Bald Mountain along the Appalachian Trail and see the sun rise over the Great Smoky Mountains along the North Carolina-Tennessee border. I have selected 16 photos from that day, spanning a 14-hour period of light, where I remained focused on the energy of the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon. Mingling among these 16 pictures are six short passages that chronicle my thoughts during that day. This is the final installment of those six passages in my series titled, “14 Hours In Light.”

If you missed the previous five posts, please visit my home page at www.baltimorewriter.wordpress.com and scroll down to read the complete series.

Thoughts on “Lines Written in Early Spring”

Thoughts on “Lines Written in Early Spring”
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photo: rus vanwestervelt, 2 may 2015, finksburg, md

Finksburg, MD- 2 May 2015. I stood at the end of the long driveway where, about a quarter-mile behind me, my daughter led her pony into the fields, finding her way among the green grasses that seemed to have leaped from the ground in a rush to usher in spring.

From my vantage point, where I could hear the whinny of happy horses wandering lazily in the paddock, I looked along the winding, white fence that separated man and nature, and I whispered the words of William Wordsworth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring.”

As I now turn inward to focus more on my own words and less on the actions and events in and around my hometown, I am struck with a melancholic wash that lingers, despite the sounds and sights of spring’s fulfilled rite.

This, too, shall pass. I am certain. But for now, I will wallow a bit in this paradoxical Baltimore Spring, and ponder the travesties and consequences of what man has done to man.

Lines Written in Early Spring –William Wordsworth

I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.

The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.

If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?