Poetry for new dads

Grand plans will have to wait.
Time works differently here:
sometimes it hums,
sometimes skips, sometimes
vanishes.
You will think, “There’s a thought;
I’ll write about that-”
Only – catch the thought, before
nappies and necessity
make it dissipate
in baths at 8
and all that joy – the total joy
that nonetheless necessitates
that all grand plans will have to wait.
At end of day, the poem is this:
the breathing child
upon the chest.
Catch the moment while you can:
stardust spark in the grandest plan.

Spring Cleaning (II)

I go to prepare a place for you.
We do too;
with unsure anticipation, we make a space
atop the stairs, with bunting and books
and animals on the walls,
a cot, tiny clothes,
a place for your toys.

We also prepare
our days, our thoughts.
They too make space
for the big rearrange,
this reordering of selves,
this exchanging of grace.
We sweep out old cobwebs, air out stale pride.
Not only our home
but our hearts must be fit.
We prepare a space for you.

While eternity yawns its welcoming wait,
our big brother making a place for us too,
checking the time, vacuuming floors,
eagerly listening to knocks at the door…
Does my heart have room too
for eternity’s home?
We wait. We are waited for.
Time to make room.

Retreat

…yo​u will not find my actual life in these pages so much as my thoughts on the graces Our Lord has given me. I have reached the stage now where I can afford to look back; in the crucible of trials from within and without, my soul has been refined, and I can raise my head like a flower after a storm and see how the words of the Psalm have been fulfilled in my case: “The Lord is my Shepherd and I shall want nothing…”

St Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul

My brother led me to prayer,
a child, afraid in the dark.

My sister taught me, downcast, to say,
Why so downcast, O my soul?

My parents taught me to ask and search
yet not be controlled by the heart’s wild waves.

My teachers fed my questions
and books sustained my mind.

Lewis taught me magic
and Love deep, deep in time.

Robert Frost was early rhythm;
Eliot and Herbert came later on.

Auden taught me the happy eye,
the sober perspective on the folded lie,

Kierkegaard the lily’s glory
and the grace that strikes in anxious thought.

Bunyan and Luther and Thérèse
knew the scruples that strike, and the way –

the Little Way at Jesus’ feet –
so once again I’m led to pray.

My wife has taught me the open heart;
now my home and hearth expand.

O Love that finds me everywhere:
Thank You. Thank You. Thank You.

No Ghosts This Year Concludes, and a Christmas Gift

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Well, today is the last day of Advent, and so it is time for me to wrap up my Advent story for the year. If you’ve been following the story so far, you can read the last instalment below. But, if you’re new to this year’s story you can read the rest of it, plus my two previous Advent Stories, “The Gift” and “Pageant”, in this free downloadable PDF of the three stories, together for the first time. I hope the stories can be a blessing to you and to anyone else you choose to share them with. Have a blessed Christmas, celebrating the goodness of God in coming to live as one of us.

 


 

When the police officer visited him in his hospital room and showed him a photo that he did not recognise – seemingly of the man the police suspected – she said, “I didn’t think he was your man.” And then she had spoken to his parents, who stood at the foot of the bed. “He’s already confessed,” she said. “And there’s not a chance that he was the man your son saw.”

And, while the explanation helped – that the man at 12 Burden Street had been killed by his ex-wife’s new boyfriend, who knew the house well and had no need of directions from a thirteen-year-old in the street – and while the panic had subsided and the ghost-court had gone into recess, it had all only been replaced by a new flurry of unfamiliar action: group therapy sessions, individual therapy sessions, silent and unsteady walks around the hospital grounds, rooms filled with pamphlets and booklets with names like, Understanding OCD and The Way Out of Obsessions and Compulsions. Sometimes, when his parents thought he was asleep, he saw them reading the material together, stony-faced, whispering concerns to one another. But when he was awake they would tauten out their voices, as though stretching tired muscles, and say unnatural things like, “How are you going, big fella?” or, “Can we get you anything, honey?”, calling him names they never normally called him and adopting faces that said, Everything’s okay, which they had never felt the need to say before for never having feared that it wasn’t.

And then there had been Laura’s visit, with a bunch of flowers and a card from his class, her dad awkwardly in tow behind her. She had perched next to him at the end of the couch in his room and together they had tried to find words to say and found none, finding only a silence that was, for that moment, the most comforting thing anyone had said. And then she had leant over to hug him and he had felt her breath in his ear and smelt her shampoo and when she left his heart could not stop pounding and he had no idea where to begin thinking.

And Pa, too, always Pa, with books that he had “found somewhere” (the endless supply of books that man had! how did they all fit in his caravan, 0r in the handful of boxes in the attic?). Pa, with old jokes and hand-me-down stories. Pa, with, “Well, you’ve got your two front teeth, so what else do you want for Christmas this year?” And his dad saying, “You’ll be home by Christmas, the doctors reckon.” And his mum saying, “Greg, they’re not sure.” And Pa saying, “Well, we’ll just have to throw a party for you wherever you are.”

And then silence, a breather in the afternoon when they left him alone, no flurry of action, no therapists, no doctors. And then he would take out the treasury of stories that Pa had given him that night, and he would look again, again, at the strange, bewitching words of the Christina Rossetti poem Pa had found for him to read:

The end of all things is at hand. We all
Stand in the balance trembling as we stand;
Or if not trembling, tottering to a fall.
The end of all things is at hand.

O hearts of men, covet the unending land!
O hearts of men, covet the musical,
Sweet, never-ending waters of that strand!

While Earth shows poor, a slippery rolling ball,
And Hell looms vast, a gulf unplumbed, unspanned 

And Heaven flings wide its gates to great and small,
The end of all things is at hand.

The end of all things? he would wonder. Or only the end of the ghosts, of the fear, of hospital rooms and this newly-named, old familiar thing they called OCD? Hell looms vast, he read. He knew that well. But Heaven flings wide its gates to great and small. Great and small. Which was he? The vacuum was great, and he was small.

The silence always passed before he could complete the thought. Soon there was a parent, or a concerned aunt, or cousin, or a therapist or nurse coming to check something or give some reassuring thought, and the poem would have to wait, expectant somewhere hovering around his bed. He knew he would return to it soon, as soon as he had the chance, and that it promised an answer if only he could listen, and promised something more comforting than sleep, if only he could grasp it beneath the sheets and hold it to him as he lay.

“What do you want for Christmas?” the nurses always asked. Everyone asked that, as though Christmas presents alone could remedy all ills. Every year before this one he had had a wish-list that he’d subtly present to his parents, mostly books. This year, he had no thoughts, except one; and silently each time he would say that same thought, deep in his mind, where only something truly silent and reverberating could be heard. “No ghosts,” he would say, half-statement, half-request. “No more ghosts, please, this year.”

No Ghosts This Year #10

There was nothing else he could tell Pa now.

Nothing else, because words could not convey the kind of knowledge he now held. It was knowledge of an utterly certain though intangible kind, yet it carried with it also the equally palpable certainty that none would believe it. He could not tell you how he knew, yet he did know: that the man he had directed to Burden Street had been the killer, that he was in some unavoidable way to blame for the death that had taken place there, and that his life was now forfeit because of what he had done. Indeed, he had already known this in some way prior to this moment; known, that is, that his life was forfeit because of something unspeakable within him. Was that not the reason his classmates mocked him, why they called him “Savage”, why that name always seemed so apt for him, why Laura kept her distance, or why he knew he had to keep his distance from her? It all made sense. It always had made sense. Yet, like Cassandra before the fall of Troy, what he knew was never to be believed, however disastrous the consequences.

And so silently he took the book from Pa, said, “Don’t worry, it’s nothing,” and made to get ready for bed. If Pa was unconvinced, he said nothing, only paused briefly in the doorway to add, “You know where I am if you want to chat.” It was one of his common lines – whenever he could see hints of unhappiness in Philip’s face – and Philip would reply, “In the backyard”. Only, not tonight. He said, “Yes,” and looked at the cover of the book.

He had read A Christmas Carol some years ago, and images from it were still burnt into his mind, most powerfully the Ghost of Christmas Future, that figure who was all the more terrifying for being silent and invisible. Yet he was haunted too by the image of Marley, the ghost whose face first appeared in the door knocker and who Philip somehow expected to see each time he went to his own front door. He had been haunted too by the ghosts that had hovered in the night air after Marley’s appearance to Scrooge, those souls tormented by unresolved wrongdoing, doomed to linger in that tortured half-life of theirs, a life that, for months after, Philip had believed himself condemned to.

No-one else knew why. At school, he was without fault. Yet that faultlessness was a trial to maintain, especially when it was nothing like the world within. And now, he felt sure, the world within had caught up with events outside of him. The murderer inside him had crept out and taken hold of circumstances, even against his conscious will, to take another life, just as he had done so many times in his own head, when mocked, when ridiculed, when set up for failure again and again. Each time he had wished death upon another: each of those times had culminated in this moment when a murderer had seen him in the street and, knowing at first sight the murderous kinship they held, had asked him for direction. There was no doubt in Philip’s mind: there would be ghosts for him tonight, and ghosts more brutal than any that Scrooge had seen.

*

The court was in session. The witnesses, ghoulish but familiar all of them, were summoned one by one. First, the swimming instructor Philip had wished dead when he was nine. Second, the emergency teacher who always found reason to tell him off when he was in Grade Six. Third, a convoy of his peers. Fourth, Laura. She could not even speak. All she could do was point at him. And then, fifth, the Burden Street Stranger. And sixth, the dead man at Number 12 who, though Philip had never seen, was emblazoned in his mind. He had no face, only eyes, and the eyes stared into Philip’s.

Seated at the head of the court was the judge. He too was faceless yet saw everything. And when the witnesses had all spoken he raised his gavel and beat Philip’s resounding judgment into the table, into the earth below. There was nothing Philip could do. Panicked, he ran from his bed. Only water could save him, if even that would do.

Hurriedly, he entered the bathroom and slammed the door, stripping his pyjamas from his body, now drenched in condemning sweat. The sweat knew. The bathroom mirror knew. He did not wait for the water to heat before standing under it. He did not close his eyes. He simply stared through the shower screen at the sight of his face in the basin mirror. The water gathered around his face. The shower screen began to mist. Still Philip stared. Still the face and the mirror knew.

He barely heard Sarah knock. He barely had the presence of mind to cover himself as she came in. He barely registered what she said; was it, “It’s nothing I haven’t seen before”? Perhaps. At least he gave up covering himself then, and let her enter the water to take him out.

And then, “Mum, Dad.” Yes, she called, “Mum, Dad.”

And where were they? Did they come straight away? Draped in towels, he felt himself be taken. He felt the couch beneath him. He heard his mother say, “Dad, can you keep an eye on him while…”

And then the phone. It was a noisy phone. The numbers always beeped when you touched them. He heard her speak but not her words. “Easy there, mate,” said Pa, as he sat. And Pa’s soft arms enveloped him.

No Ghosts This Year #9

No answer was forthcoming simply from passing the crime scene. Nor did his family know anything about it when they came home. It had to wait until the six o’clock news for anything official, though Pa had a friend visit his caravan out the back with word of what had happened. The story was that the police had arrived around midday after a tip-off that someone had died at number 12. No-one could remember who lived there now. The old family had moved a few years ago and there had been a stream of tenants since then. Pa’s sources had no information about the current tenant or who it was that had died. Had it been suspicious? Suspicious enough for the police to be there. Had anyone heard anything? Had anyone odd been seen around the house? Many questions were asked, many theories shared. Philip had ears only for the ones in his head.

As far as he could see, it all made sense, and it was all traced back to him. The lines were so clear that, when the police officer on the news was heard asking for all who knew anything to come forward, Philip’s face was sweaty with the urgency of the moment. Yet nothing came out, not even a confession to his parents, not even a mumbled question about what the police might be after. Although he rehearsed many such questions in his head, and at a speed that defied the movement of light, only silence seemed a clear enough response to what he had heard. While the rest of his family had nothing else to talk about but the death at Number 12, Philip had no desire to talk at all. After the news, and after dinner, he took himself to his room, where he sat on his bed and tied knots inside his mind.

*

Pa found him on his bed, the light still on, around 9 o’clock that night when he came to say goodnight. He didn’t, of course, see the knots, but he did see Philip staring blankly into the wall as though seeking to see through it. He paused in the doorway and asked, “Is everything okay, mate?”

Pa was the only one who called him that, “mate”. Philip looked over at him. He had a book in his hand. Philip looked at the title. An Advent and Christmas Treasury, it was called.

Philip didn’t reply. Pa stepped in closer to him, close enough to pass him the book, but he held it briefly suspended between them, letting Philip’s hand touch it but not quite giving it to him.

“I brought you this,” he said. “I knew I had it somewhere. I remembered it when you talked about ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ the other day.” He moved in now to sit beside Philip and, taking the book back, he opened it. “Look,” he said. “It’s got some other Rossetti poems in here that I thought you might like more. There’s one…” His hand hovered over the pages, as though trying to summon up the exact page from memory. “‘The end of all things is at hand’,” he said, then chuckled. “It’s a grim name. But it’s a beautiful poem. I think – ” He turned to a page near the centre of the book and, finding the poem, looked over the words to remind himself of them. “Yes, I think you’ll see her skill more if you read this one.”

Only then did he look up at Philip, whose eyes were directed towards the book but focused on nothing.

“Phil?” He paused. “Is there anything…?”

The question hung incomplete, slightly inflected, with Pa’s eyes asking the rest.

“Pa,” said Philip. “If…”

“Yes?” prompted Pa.

Philip paused, rearranging imagined words somewhere above his head.

“Is it…can someone be arrested for helping…for making a crime possible?”

Pa’s eyes turned more intently toward Philip’s.

“Do you mean…being an accessory?”

“Maybe…” said Philip. “I mean, if…”

Pa closed the book. Philip saw the picture on the front cover. He recognised the scene: Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present. He stared at it while he spoke, though the image slowed his words, almost blocking them somewhere in between brain and mouth.

“If…what happened at Burden Street…if someone had done something…not meaning to…something that helped…”

“Phil,” said Pa, moving closer, “have you done something?”

Philip’s eyes settled on Scrooge’s face. He tried to see into them, but couldn’t. The Ghost of Christmas Present, large, jolly, full of yuletide cheer – what did his glowing cheeks seem to say to Philip that night?

No Ghosts This Year #8

That lunchtime, before Drama class, Philip had nearly lost a prop that he’d brought from home for the performance they were doing, and had spent so much time running around looking for it – opening up and emptying the contents of his bag and locker, checking his home room, everywhere he could think of – that when he had arrived in class, he had been more flustered than usual for an afternoon class. And, to top it all off, when he’d finally come to class with his prop in hand and sat down, the boy next to him, a new boy to the school called Simon, had said, “I thought I smelt something.” It had taken a few minutes to realise that this was Simon’s latest joke – he was using it on most people in the class that afternoon – but even then the joke had stuck on him like his sweaty shirt did. The whole lesson after that, he’d had that same feeling about him as though he were no longer inside him but watching. As he had lain on the floor pretending to be a paintbrush, talking about what a hard master Van Gogh was, with the coloured wool he had brought to school gathered around his head, he had felt as though that very well might have been true. Better to be a paintbrush than what he was.

And so, by the time Sarah had come to fetch him, Philip had nothing to say. There had been plenty of material for conversation throughout the morning: all the ridiculous and frustrating things his teachers had made him do, as though they mattered at all by this time of year. Yet the afternoon’s Drama class had overshadowed all of that, and done so in a way that words could not convey. The mute position he’d taken on the Drama room floor seemed somehow the most fitting way of expressing what had been and gone through the day. Sarah tried to make conversation a few times but, failing altogether, had settled into silence herself, though almost certainly a very different silence to the one that Philip inhabited.

Sarah would not, for instance, have been ruing Philip’s awkwardness with Laura that morning when passing the milk-bar had made him think of her offer to walk to school together. Nor would Sarah have felt that odd mixture of fear and shame that assaulted him when they approached Burden Street. Yet she would certainly have shared his surprise at seeing the police barricade outside Number 12, yellow-and-blue police tape marking out a temporary fence across the front lawn and white-and-blue cars in the street. And, in that moment of shared surprise, Sarah’s silence turned to now expressing Philip’s thoughts when she said, “What happened here?” But before she could speak Philip’s thoughts had turned to white noise in his ears.