Escaping the Swamp

Good morning.  I have wasted mornings, days, weeks, years, decades—perhaps my life?  I look back and see that some things did happen, that I even helped a few good things to happen, but I have much to regret.  As I type now, Pachelbel’s Canon in D is playing on my computer.  Almost exactly half of my lifetime ago, I skated for a minute-long solo to Pachelbel’s Canon, as played by James Galway on his gold flute.  I was taking part in a skating competition held in a small rink in College Park, Maryland.  I was in the second category: silver.  The best skaters were in the gold group.  But because of that afternoon, I know what it is like to be alone moving on the ice to the melody and rhythm of the music playing, the music I’d chosen, the routine I’d developed.  I was terrified, and my closing spin spun very little and threatened to tip over.  I won first place in my small category, in which at 35 I was the eldest by far.  Winning the ribbon wasn’t much of an accomplishment, but my minute on the ice is a moment I call to the surface from time to time, happy to have known it, to have had the chance to move to the music across the smooth ice, all on my own.

Another small skating milestone

But when I look back at my remembered moments from the past year, relentlessly massing games of Scrabble loom above all else, and I feel sad for what I have done and not done.  Somehow much good happened, too: evenings with a soulmate friend, a new spiritual home, our choir, the Follies and My Fair Lady, the interfaith service where I shared with my friends and neighbors a little about my dear sweet mother, acceptable classes taught and taken, even somehow a billiards trophy in the fall for my pool partner and me.  But the past year has ridden on a swamp of words on my Kindle’s Scrabble board, along with words repeated over and over again on the news channel that is my choice.

Where are the words I want so vehemently to send in good order to pages in my journal or my blog?  I’ve lost the train of thought undergirding my life, submerged it in the words of distraction from my desperation, wishing and fishing for something of worth to think, note, and share.  My thoughts have drowned in random words found within seven letters and the relentless repetition of distressing news—because this past year, as in all the years of my life since age six, I couldn’t figure out who and what I was supposed to be.  I wouldn’t choose among the limited possibilities that came to mind, all failing to announce, “Here is what you have to offer, to say, to share.  Here is how you are meant to write in order to serve.”

And so here I am, about to move into another decade, one that those still young or middle aged consider several steps into decrepitude.  Living where I do, I know that friends and neighbors twenty years older than I are moving not into decay but into ongoing vibrancy and meaning.  So it is not too late for me—and not too late for anyone who has a future of even a little time.  But how much longer am I going to wait before I live every day, before my life is no longer a series of green islands poking up out of vast swampy waters?  These waters are not within God’s ocean but are murky places in which the sustaining, renewing minerals, vegetation, and living beings are choked out and the air is filled with ensnaring expectations and Siren songs.  The luring voices tell me to find more, be more, discover my calling, change lives through my words (when I’m struggling to keep my own afloat), and expect Epiphany to leap from the wasteland words to rescue me, finally, from the frustration and years now drowning me.

I own both a Kindle and a Nook.  Last night, in the middle of my hours of bombarding myself with random words and others’ words while hoping, of course, for my own to appear and arrange themselves into meaning and purpose, I scrolled through the titles on my Nook and was aghast at their number.  Dozens and dozens of other worthwhile books fill my five bookcases and my Kindle.  I pick up a book, read several pages, leave the book for a few days as I sample another, lose the train of meaning in the first book, and go on to a third, all the while praying that my life’s meaning will rise from the pages.  I lose courage again, of course, failing to find salvation in my library any more than I’ve found salvation in accumulating games of Scrabble or the pronouncements of pundits on MSNBC.

During my summers in a girls’ camp in Maine, one of my favorite special activities was canoeing or paddling a small sailboat in the swamp at the far side of the lake.  I loved the mysterious entangling fronds, the inlets leading nowhere, and the dragonflies hovering over the murky water beyond the tiny one-tree island we called Japanese Island.  But after a half-hour of exploring the shallow water filled with weeds and the stumps of long-submerged trees, we always traveled back into the broad open expanse of the lake, paddling or sailing on toward our destination: a point on which to unroll our sleeping bags for the night or the lodges and cabins that were our home for the summer.

As another decade in my life turns over, will I, finally, paddle or sail out of the maze-like swamp that I have allowed to hold me captive all these years and find my way to open waters—waters where the landing places and destinations, if less exotic than the swamp, are nevertheless places of shelter and possibilities?

I have, in fact, attempted countless times to exit my swamp.  Often I’ve tried constructing a detailed map: a schedule of what I will do and accomplish every day.  My record for following a schedule is one month, and that schedule was only a calendar giving the two or three tasks I absolutely must complete each day in order to have any hope of meeting a mass of responsibilities looming like an iceberg.  Most often my schedules are ambitious outlines specifying the times—10 a.m. to 11, 6:30 p.m. to 7:15, and so on—during which, I decree, I will write poetry and prose, practice the flute and piano, pay bills, compose letters, clean my apartment, learn the dulcimer and ukulele, study Italian and French, read worthy books—every day.  Success in following such schedules has rarely lasted even a single day.

As I approach and enter my new life decade, I have chosen a simpler, more direct route for exiting my swamp.  Each morning I will meditate and write something—just something, without requirements for length, style, meaning, or merit.  Many writing gurus opine that writing by hand, with a pen in a physical journal, leads to the most satisfactory alignment of thoughts turned into sentences.  But I’m allowing myself to write on the computer if I choose.  I type rapidly and easily, and so when I open a new document in Word, I can find it filling with words before I’ve had a chance to frighten myself with the weight and magnificence I think each phrase should carry.  As I write, I will listen to music.  Right now, I’m typing as my hero Andrea Bocelli sings “Au fond du temple Saint” with Bryn Terfel.  I love music, am lifted by music, but in my swamp, I’ve usually failed even to decorate my days with the voices and melodies I love—perhaps partly because music can wallop us with memories, loss, and regret.  Yet the gifts of music are greater even than the sadness it can evoke.

Throughout every day, I will carry a small notebook to record impressions from any reading I may do and from the day’s meaningful moments.  I will make no demands about the pithiness or purposefulness of my notebook entries, which will be designed to prevent impressions and experiences from slipping below the murky surface of memory.  Some of the entries in my notebook may—or might not—inspire my morning writing or other writing I choose to do.

The rest of every day will be made of conscious choices, instead of reactive floundering in the grip of swampy weed words—Scrabble, television, and the discouraging messages filling my mind.  I may play the flute one morning and spend another at Mass with my friend.  I may make a bead necklace, play show tunes on the piano, walk by the pond, practice my lines for an upcoming play, read an entertaining book or great literature, review Italian grammar, pull together a blog entry, or briefly see what my friends have to say on Facebook.  And yes, I may watch a television program while I play games of Scrabble on my Kindle.  But I will undertake each activity purposefully, whether it is a short visit to the swamp or a trip across the open waters of creativity, friendship, and learning.  Of course some things should be or have to be done; life’s demands balance life’s delights and opportunities.  And helping when the possibility appears gives joy as well as service.  Balance is hard to find when I am living in—not just visiting—the swamp.

So get ready to come about: I’m sailing out of Swamp Winnie and heading for open waters.

North Country August

Maine Morning
Maine Morning, by Mason Hayek

For me, August is a month of change.  It is a time of coming to the world and growing older, of awakening to sun-filled hot, blue mornings filled with blossoming, burgeoning life.  And also for me, August is a month of meeting loss and death.

I was born in August, and on the August day that I marked fifty-five years of life, my infinitely dear father died.  In the years I lived in the North Country—in Maine and in New York near the Canadian border—August was a time of transition for Nature, too.  Wind stirred the lakes, a few leaves turned red before their time, and most nights called for warm blankets and flannel nightgowns.

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August sky

In “North Country August,” autumn tunes up its season of change.  In this poem, I welcome the coming of autumn’s pared-down beauty.  I will never cease grieving my losses, above all my parents and other dear ones who have gone on ahead.  Yet while I struggle to keep the confident outlook of the poem’s last stanza, I vow to embrace its peace and optimism, as best I can.

North Country August

A large brown duck with orange feet stands on a log by the creek
And then swims upstream against the current.
In the smooth water, a perfect duck looks back at her.
Crows call between the dead trees of the swamp.
Reeds and low brambles hold an early fall dryness,
While the scraggly petunias in window boxes still remember spring.
A monarch butterfly tastes purple phlox.
Chattering chickadees fly in to feed on sunflower seeds.
The sky is clear, but the mountains are lost in haze.
The Earth waits for change.

Along the fence roses bloom, with buds forming
As if the month were still July.
Would I want to live in July forever?
August is Earth’s send-off to subtler days ahead.
How lovely it will be to sleep soundly under my blanket.
Already the Sun is setting earlier,
With evenings that give more time for reflection,
Fewer demands to be out doing.

One glorious fall morning, the snow geese will fill the sky
From horizon to horizon.
Then snow crystals will sparkle in cold December air,
And mists will rise until the lake is frozen.
The first reawakening will be the birds on a March morning.
Ice will boom in the warming Sun,
And the seagulls will congregate on the flows by the ferry channel in glorious reunion.
The silent flight of herons, with their long dancers’ legs, will herald summer,
Spread before us once again.

I was born in August.
Each year of my life closes then.
But as my season of birth,
August is the beginning for what is still to come.
My spring will not return in this life.
Yet I choose not to see August as summer’s end.
It shall be my passage into vivid autumn colors,
My transformation into the clarity of September’s blue skies.
I shall warm myself in the cool evenings by my own fires
And by the fires of losses turned into memories
And regrets into experience.
I will, like the roses of autumn, bloom in beauty and tranquility
With no thought of the frost to come.

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“North Country August” also appears in my book A Woman in Time.

Embracing Now

This is a meditation about floundering and about renewing connections—with memories, dreams and joy, courage, and loved ones on the Other Side.  If you don’t wish to read the entire essay, then choose the last section because it may offer comfort and assurance if you are missing people dear to you.

Returning to the Patio

I’m sitting on my patio for the first time since sweet Mother and I were able to sit here together.  Because of regrets, I have resisted enjoying the patio since Mother’s passing.  But now I seem to be here with the three of us—Mother, Daddy, and me.  The birds are singing for us, and although it’s already July—yesterday was the 4th—the bird chorus sounds like dawn in spring.  While the air is almost hot, a little breeze makes the morning inviting.

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The summer that I moved here, the summer of 2011, Mother and I often sat on our patio together.  We used the antique wicker chairs on the patio then.  I’ve since had them repainted and moved inside to preserve them; they were in Mother’s girlhood home.  Four years ago, I bought two pseudo-wicker chairs from Target to use outdoors.  This morning is the first time I’ve sat in either of them.

Wicker chairs

On that summer I moved to our apartment, I often sat on the patio as I wrote on the small, inexpensive notebook computer that I’m using now.  Mother and I also sat outdoors into the night, past dark, talking and being together.  And the patio takes me back into our screened porch at 113 Rockingham Drive, where Daddy loved to do his writing, and where all three of us ate countless summer dinners and then sat together as the insect chorus tuned up and swung into their full-throated renditions.

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Holding Back, Weighted Down

In much the way that I’ve waited to sit on the patio, I’ve been waiting to begin life.  Yet I’m already what most would consider old.  If I were to be the subject of a news story, I’d be called an “elderly woman.”  I don’t feel elderly, and except for my wrinkles, I don’t look elderly.  I’m blessed to be physically agile and quick, in spite of my limited store of energy, a lifelong limitation.  It seems as though life was fresh—a bud just opening—and then, bang, it was two-thirds over, at least.  What am I waiting for?

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Even though I’ve been retired for a little over five years now, I’ve let myself feel weighted down with “shoulds.”  Almost all of these shoulds are things I like to do or at least value, but there have been such a host of them that many days, and especially evenings and into the night and on to early morning, I have sat in paralysis, wishing I could or would move forward.

You’d think I would have figured it out before this morning that I can, right now, begin living the life I want to lead—that living life the way I choose does not require that I first master and fulfill everything on my ideal to-do list to prove my worthiness.  And when I speak of living the life I want to lead, I’m not suggesting that problems won’t appear—health, financial, social; mice in the kitchen; who knows what.  Rather, I’m speaking of my attitude toward each day, toward each moment of the day.

Turning Blessings into Joy

I have so many blessings, including wonderful friends and enticing interests.  I love to take classes, especially in French and Italian.  I do love to write, in spite of writing’s smothering shadow and sometimes-burning sunshine in my life because of the power I’ve given writing to tell me whether or not I am sufficient.  I love my apartment—the apartment that was first my mother’s and then ours together—although I see so much that needs doing to return it to its loveliness.  I want to play my piano and flute, learn to play the dulcimer and ukulele (both of which have sat waiting for me for years), make more bead necklaces.  I have lines to master for the play that I’m in.  And on and on.  But I’ve let my interests kidnap my peace of mind because they became expectations rather than hobbies.

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When I was merely “middle aged,” I daydreamed about someday having a small cottage.  I’d sit on the comfortable couch in the living room, feeling cozy and reading books.  I don’t own a cottage, but I live in a cozy apartment.  It needs a big dose of my love to rise to its full potential, but I can return to loving it immediately.  And that is what I am doing this morning by sitting on the patio and writing.

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My mother’s apartment at Christmas 2010, eight months before we began sharing the apartment

Getting rid of the shoulds, I can relish each moment of the day: making my simple meals in the kitchen, turning on the computer to see what interesting e-mails have appeared, reading, meditating, writing without letting the shadow of judgment take away the nourishing light and air, doing chores, greeting neighbors, playing music, even paying bills, which after all are a sign of my blessings.  If I’m not worried about being insufficient, I can relish what I have and do.  I can shed the fear that has continued to bind me, even as my world of blessings offered itself to me.

Choosing Contentment

As I’ve often told myself and others, part of the reason that I had a thoroughly rewarding three weeks in Italy several years ago is that I decided ahead of time to find everything about the trip interesting and to have fun no matter what.  And I did, in spite of a few days of upset when a traveling companion and I clashed (we soon parted ways), a national train strike that threatened to strand me alone in Naples when I needed to be in Pisa, and a bad case of sunburn and hives (from mosquito bites) decorating my face.  Nevertheless, I was massively happy in Italy.

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Mount Vesuvius, near Naples 

And one reason for that happiness was that I had decided ahead of time to be happy.  Throughout the trip I also released my normal shoulds: I simply lived.  Everyday life usually offers more challenges than even strike-laden travel, but the principle, I believe, holds true: Being content and serene are as much a state of mind as a state of external reality.  I now choose contentment and serenity.  And I will do my best to maintain this choice when true hardships come.

Hearing an Answer to My Prayer

Although over the last couple of days I had one of my confidence meltdowns (since passed), I have a new profound reason for experiencing contentment and serenity.  In spite of many signs from my dear ones since their passing from this life, I had been feeling alone and even uncertain that my past experiences of our ongoing connection were real.  I prayed for a new sign and wished for the kind of irrefutable direct communication that a few people have known.  And then my prayer was answered.

I am playing Eliza Doolittle in a much-cut-down version of My Fair Lady.  (A chorus will be singing the songs, although I will sing along.)  To help me learn my part, I recorded my lines and the lines surrounding mine into a digital recorder.  Then, using a line in, I transferred the digital recording to my PC.  I opened my recording in iTunes and also copied it to my iPod, for use on my evening walks. The first time I listened to the recording on the computer, I was astounded to hear, behind my spoken words, a voice softly singing, “on the plain, on the plain,” and then more clearly, “in Spain, in Spain.”

When I made the recording, I did not own the movie or soundtrack, and I did not sing; I only spoke the words from the printed script.  And the singing voice is not mine.  To make sure I wasn’t mistaken in that belief, I tried transferring a new recording from the digital recorder to the computer.  During that transfer, I sang vigorously; none of my singing registered in the transferred recording, not a peep.  Interestingly, the singing voice that I hear when I listen to the recording on the computer (and on my iPod) is not present on the original digital recording, only on the recording after it had been transferred to the computer.  On the computer and iPod, I eventually discovered a softer addition: a few notes sung just after I mention the song “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.”  I’d not noticed those notes at first because they are faint—but absolutely present.

Glee Plays the Game Playbill
My mother, Doris Burgess (later Doris Burgess Hayek), was in the cast for this production at Eastern Kentucky State Teachers College (now Eastern Kentucky University).

In this life, my mother had a beautiful voice.  Daddy said hers was the most beautiful soprano he’d ever heard.  Mother was also a truly talented actress, and she loved the stage.  How appropriate that she would answer my prayer for a tangible sign by singing a few notes from the play that I’m in.  I am blessed by this gift beyond words.  I think that Daddy, too, had a hand in making the gift possible.  Mother and Daddy are my universe, always and forever.  And each time I hear that pretty voice singing, “in Spain, in Spain,” I am comforted that we truly are together in the universe, even now.

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If you are interested in afterlife communication, you might like to read the following:
Answers about the Afterlife: A Private Investigator’s 15-Year Research Unlocks the Mysteries of Life after Death, by Bob Olson
Afterlife Communication: 16 Proven Methods, 85 True Accounts, edited by R. Craig Hogan
(The first chapter in this collection is “Voices of People in Spirit Recorded on a PC,” by Sonia Rinaldi.)
Through the Darkness, by Janet Nohavec
(In this memoir, Janet Nohavec, a former Roman Catholic nun, tells of her experiences with those in spirit.  I have spoken with her and find her impressively credible.)
Hello from Heaven: A New Field of Research – After-Death Communication Confirms That Life and Love Are Eternal, by Bill Guggenheim and Judy Guggenheim

Moon Dreams

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Moonrise, by Stanislaw Maslowski, 1884; National Museum, Kraków  (Stanisław Masłowski [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.)

“Moonspinners.  They’re naiads—you know, water nymphs.  Sometimes, when you’re deep in the countryside, you meet three girls, walking along the hill tracks in the dusk, spinning.  They each have a spindle, and on to these they are spinning their wool, milk-white, like the moonlight.  In fact, it is the moonlight, the moon itself. . . . all they have to do is to see that the world gets its hours of darkness, and they do this by spinning the moon down out of the sky.”[1]

The Moon-Spinners, by Mary Stewart (1916-2014), tells the story of a young Englishwoman, Nicola Ferris, who works for the British Embassy in Athens and is on vacation in Crete with her cousin.  While exploring in the mountains on the day before her cousin arrives, Nicola discovers a young Englishman, Mark Langley, and his Greek guide, Lambis, who have witnessed a murder.  The murderers have shot Mark and left him for dead and have taken his teenaged brother, Colin.  Nicola tends to Mark’s wound and then ignores his and Lambis’s instructions to go on with her holiday without getting further involved in their plight.  The characters Nicola meets in the tiny hotel in the village of Agios Georgios turn out, of course, to be in the thick of the mystery, and Nicola remains anything but uninvolved.

Transporting Teenaged Me

The novel, with its captivating and exotic setting, romance, suspense, and—of course—happy ending, helped me to endure high school, during which I dreaded every day.  Most of my teachers relentlessly repeated the mantra, “If you don’t have top grades, you won’t get into college.”  I felt unbearable pressure to sustain my good average and a constant fear of failing to continue measuring up.

In my high-school class of 550, friends were available even for the socially insecure, as I was.  I liked my friends and always had a place with them in the lunchroom, but I didn’t have a high-school through-thick-and-thin best friend the way I’d had a best friend at summer camp, and I craved that kind of friend.  I also wanted a boyfriend.  Senior year I did have Wayne, whom I’d met at camp, but he lived three hours away, and I never did manage to talk myself into caring about him without big reservations.  I played the flute in the school band, but prime social scenes such as the yearly musical and the cheerleading squad were closed to mousy me.

The Moon-Spinners and other Mary Stewart novels were my escape, my salvation.  I read them in between, and sometimes instead of, my towering assignments and daydreamed about finding a handsome young man in distress to rescue.  When I hear the name “Mary Stewart,” I see myself sprawled on the pink spread covering my bed in my room on Rockingham Drive.  Mother and Daddy are in the kitchen and will soon call me to supper.  The notebooks and textbooks surrounding me are taunting me, not always loudly enough to make me turn to them but raucously enough both to taint and to sweeten my time with Mary Stewart’s romantic, adventurous young heroines and heroes.

Still Inspiring Yearning

The Moon-Spinners was not quite as appealing to me when I read it this week as it was when I read it in the 1960s.  The frequent lists of flowers and other plants, for instance, seem contrived, or perhaps it’s that I don’t share Mary Stewart’s fascination with identifying every single plant as it is confronted.  Nicola Ferris’s cousin, Frances Scorby, is a botanist, which explains Frances’s knowledge of plants, but Nicola also names one after the other, even as she is worrying about potential murderers around each turn.  Then, too, the climax of the book seems forced, with Mark, Colin, and Lambis—with help from Nicola—defeating the villain in a somewhat cartoon-like brawl.

But The Moon-Spinners still stirs my yearnings.  Teenaged me told herself stories of finding a young man like Mark who needed my tender care to recover from some dire illness or injury and who would love me absolutely.  To go to sleep at night, I daydreamed my way into his story, over and over.  I still remember how I visualized Mark’s/my young man’s cave-like hideout in the mountains.  I continue to dream sometimes of a similar man—although healthy and no longer young—whom I would tenderly love and who would love me absolutely in return.

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Windmills such as Nicola might have seen on Crete  (Photo by Pavlemadrid, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Beyond the inexhaustible plant life, The Moon-Spinners vividly describes the scenery of Crete, and the sails of the Greek windmills helped spin me into the world of the story.  And so as I read The Moon-Spinners this week, I wanted to be overseas, minus the criminals of course, at least for a few weeks of quiet and wandering.  I still yearn to explore foreign lands, sleep in quaint villages, taste cultures and lives vastly different from my own.  I’ve had the blessing of visiting Europe five times, but I crave returning.

Transforming Yearning

That dream is perhaps more likely to be real than is the arrival of the man whom I sought so earnestly in my younger years and for whom I still keep a candle burning.  Even now the longings sometimes tug at me:

Wishing for a man—
To love and be loved—
Crept back today
As I danced with the women
In our line-dancing club
To a country tune our leader played.

The singer was holding his lady dear,
And I waltzed-two-three,
Turned-two-three,
Wrapped within motion,
And the words pulled longing
Out from under the years,
And it waltzed with me
Again-two-three.[2]

Yet other times I think I am too busy, too happily overbooked, to welcome Prince Charming into my life at this point.  (But he’s welcome to stop by; a woman can change her mind.)

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A rural road in Tuscany

With or without a plane ticket to Europe, I can answer some of my other longings.  I wish to wander the Tuscan countryside.  But whether I ever return to Tuscany or not, I can walk by the pond in our community and explore the grounds of nearby Longwood Gardens and Winterthur.  They’re not Tuscan, but they’re filled with beauty.  I can continue studying Italian, read books in Italian and about Italy, and go on loving and listening to Andrea Bocelli, with a concert to thrill me from time to time.  And I have been to Tuscany and have masses of memories to savor.

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Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris  (Photo by Zuffe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.)

I remember the last time I saw Paris, or rather the only time I saw Paris.  I was young and Paris was magnificent.  How blessed I am!  I may not return, but as with my Tuscan reveries, I can remember how it was, study the language, and throw myself into vicarious adventures via books, movies, and music.

Becoming a Moonspinner

Whether or not I again see distant lands, and whether or not my aging prince ever gallops up to my door, life goes on spinning beautiful tales under my waning but still-shining moon.  The darkening moon is with me, with us all, as completely as the full moon.  As the Moonspinners “see that the world gets its hours of darkness . . . by spinning the moon down out of the sky,” the waning moon gives us time to see the stars that illuminate our lives with their subtler lights.  And so:

I shall warm myself in the cool evenings by my own fires
And by the fires of losses turned into memories
And regrets into experience.
I will, like the roses of autumn, bloom in beauty and tranquility
With no thought of the frost to come.[3]

I will nurture peace within myself.  Then perhaps I can become a better Moonspinner, sharing comfort and serenity, harmony and repose.

 

[1] Mary Stewart, The Moon-Spinners (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1962), p. 74  in the Kindle edition.
[2] Winifred Burgess Hayek, “The Waltz,” A Woman in Time (CreateSpace 2016), p. 160.
[3] Winifred Burgess Hayek, from “North Country August,” A Woman in Time, p. 255.