“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” ~ Emily Dickinson
Tell it slant. Find a way to tell the story in an effective, interesting way. Reach into the mass of it and pull out the nugget and go with it.
A few weeks ago when I came across the legend of the pelican, it pierced my heart, soul, and mind, and I knew I wanted to write about it, but I didn’t know what I wanted to say or how to say it. I held off, days went by, and I kept feeling that the story was far more beautiful than waiting to find a slant or waiting to glean all the truths from it. Or any truth at all.
Here’s the story: Legend held that mother pelicans, when they couldn’t feed their young, would lean down, and press their long beaks into their chests, piercing them, and sustain their babies with their own blood. For Christians this imagery recalls Christ’s death and resurrection, and the way Christ continues to sustain God’s people through the sacrament of Communion.
Truth is, I cannot write a story or essay without seeing some particle in it that becomes my focus or truth, something different, something that really speaks to me, something I can manipulate and mold into something meaningful. It gives me my approach. I don’t need to tell the same old story that everybody else does or see the truth that is evident to all or brush along the edges, wading in the shallow end, and not go deep. I need to see it in my own way.
Here’s the truth I came to as I wrote to discovery: “It’s an image of our calling. We often slip through life thinking that only preachers are called by God, that only those in full-time church ministry are called. No. All Christians are called to share God’s life-giving love with the world—giving of ourselves to sustain those around us. Yet we often only sit inside those cathedrals (or churches) under the pelican and listen to another, who is exercising his (or her) call and speaking an interpretation of what he (or she) has learned through growth in that call, and when we walk out of those cathedral (or church) doors, we walk away from the pelican . . . and the reminder that we, too, are called to pour blood (or love, or help, or support, or ministry) on those around us as we go through our days . . . at the office, at the grocery store, at home, on the walking trail, over the fence, wherever our path takes us.”
Afterward, I was talking to my friend, fellow writer, and English professor, Neil, about it. I told him I couldn’t write the story at first. I didn’t know how to approach it. I couldn’t figure out what exactly I could learn from it and what deeper meaning it had. And then it came as I voiced the situation out loud.
I started my February 7 blog post with: “I remember Paris. I remember Notre Dame, for I was there at a young, impressionable age. I remember touring the interior and strolling down the avenue across the river and looking over at the ancient landmark—its nighttime illumination, its lights reflecting in the Seine, its Gothic spire with such a thin cross at the top, the bells and towers, the ornate and intricate architectural details depicting biblical history, the colorful windows, the buttresses, and the gargoyles. I do not remember, however, seeing the pelican statue nestled between the gargoyles atop the cathedral, beak on chest, piercing it so her blood can flow.”
And so could it be that we are so busy with the itinerary of our lives—going to work, going to church, going to committee meetings, going to speaking engagements, taking care of family, begging God to show us how we’re needed—that we miss the one little thing that’s there in plain view? The one grain of sand on the beach where we could have made a difference. The one little need. The one.
I play bubbles with my four-month-old puppy. I blow and fill the back yard with soap bubbles, and she chases them. Inevitably, one bubble strays off, and she goes after it, leaving ninety-nine other floating bubbles moving in the sky above. “Look at all these!” I say, trying to call her back to see the possibilities in the group as a whole. She keeps up after the one.
In that majestic marvel of a cathedral, Notre Dame, there’s one pelican that looks down on the city and its population and its tourists. Yet how many don’t see it? How many miss the story? How many are so focused on the cathedral as a whole, and how many are focused on the architectural details and notes of historical truth pointed out by tour guides? How many miss the truth, evident, yet way above their heads?
In your quest to go and do and tell to the thousands, did you miss the one who had a real need that day? Are you more about fulfilling obligation than touching a heart? I think sometimes we are so much about chasing the ninety-nine that we miss entirely the one.
I remember Paris. I remember Notre Dame, for I was there at a young, impressionable age. I remember touring the interior and strolling down the avenue across the river and looking over at the ancient landmark—its nighttime illumination, its lights reflecting in the Seine, its Gothic spire with such a thin cross at the top, the bells and towers, the ornate and intricate architectural details depicting biblical history, the colorful windows, the buttresses, and the gargoyles.
I do not remember, however, seeing the pelican statue nestled between the gargoyles atop the cathedral, beak on chest, piercing it so her blood can flow.
I came across the legend of the life-rendering pelican earlier this week, and it has continued to scroll through my mind.
Legend held that mother pelicans, when they couldn’t feed their young, would lean down, and press their long beaks into their chests, piercing them, and sustain their babies with their own blood. For Christians this imagery recalls Christ’s death and resurrection, and the way Christ continues to sustain God’s people through the sacrament of Communion.
The Life-rendering Pelican
One of the oldest symbols in the Christian tradition is that of the pelican feeding her young. She is not as well known in Christianity today, but she still exists in places. Many cathedrals use this imagery in statues, stained windows, and at the altar. The pelican’s pose is almost always the same: she stands upright with her wings outstretched and her beak pointed down into her chest, her children flocking around her, looking up at her expectantly.
The legend actually precedes Christianity. Fossil evidence of pelicans dates back at least thirty million years to the remains of a beak similar to that of the modern species, found in France.
The legend of the pelican had a few variations. It was adopted into Christianity by the 2nd century, when it appeared in the Physiologus, a Christian adaptation of popular animal legends and symbols.
“The little pelicans strike their parents, and the parents, striking back, kill them. But on the third day the mother pelican strikes and opens her side and pours blood over her dead young. In this way they are revived and made well. So Our Lord Jesus Christ says also through the prophet Isaiah: ‘I have brought up children and exalted them, but they have despised me’ (Isaiah 1:2). We struck God by serving the creature rather than the Creator. Therefore He deigned to ascend the cross, and when His side was pierced, blood and water gushed forth unto our salvation and eternal life.”
The legend became popular in Christian art and was taken up by many later writers, including Shakespeare, referred to by Laertes in Hamlet: “To his good friends thus wide I’ll ope my arms; and like the kind life-rendering pelican, Repast them with my blood.” (Act IV, Scene 5, Line 46)
I pulled out my college Shakespeare book—I took two semesters of Shakespeare. The passage was highlighted with a green magic marker, but there were no notes in the margin, meaning my professor did not expound on the meaning and implications of the life-rendering pelican. Surprising, because Dr. Mariah Butler took every opportunity to relate literature to the Bible or Christianity.
The legend has stayed with me all week. It is an allegorical depiction of Christ taking his own blood and securing eternal redemption. It shows sacrificial love.
It’s also an image of our calling. We often slip through life thinking that only preachers are called by God, that only those in full-time church ministry are called. No. All Christians are called to share God’s life-giving love with the world—giving of ourselves to sustain those around us.
Yet we often only sit inside those cathedrals (or churches) under the pelican and listen to another, who is exercising his (or her) call and speaking an interpretation of what he (or she) has learned through growth in that call, and when we walk out of those cathedral (or church) doors, we walk away from the pelican . . . and the reminder that we, too, are called to pour blood (or love, or help, or support, or ministry) on those around us as we go through our days . . . at the office, at the grocery store, at home, on the walking trail, over the fence, wherever our path takes us.
As the morning sky grows pink and pale cerulean, rose red at the line of horizon, I can see from my window the snow from three days ago. It has melted a bit. It has been trampled on. It is pocked with footprints. Temps will climb to 50 today. This evening it will be gone. Most of it.
But not on my deck. The packed-hard ice and snow will stay with me all week, I suspect. The deck faces north and in the winter gets no sun. The snow piled up to four and a half inches at one point, and then it snowed all night after I measured. Winter is harsh.
It makes me think of warm days and sitting outside. Eight months out of the year, I can enjoy my deck. I often take work or writing out there. I eat three meals a day out there. I sit and think and watch birds, butterflies, and dragonflies. I look over my yard and try to figure out something else to plant or how many more stones I can add or what specialty item I can build. Last year it was a fairy garden. What will it be this year?
It will be something. I am filled with a desire to get out there and do something. Anything. Dig, plant, create. I love growth.
This is true on a personal level, too. If there is not an attitude of constant assessment and awareness and attempts to grow, to reach higher, to be more, then what is there?
In everyone’s heart and soul, there is always something to chisel out, to mold, to make better. If I am a living part of the vine, my leaves will be coming again in season, and I will bear fruit. Until then, I will bear.
To the Year that just eased out:
2015—You sneaked in, first with a colonoscopy I’d put off, then
Ice and snow—seven days trapped inside my house, all meetings and events canceled, then
Cleveland—lifetime home and lunch with the girls of my high school class…old friends!
You sent art crawls, festivals, authors circles, writing groups, workshops, opportunities to speak and share my book, and . . .
Cracker Barrel, Chop House, Merridees, Amerigos, Circa, Homestead with old and new friends, and then, whew . . .
The Rolling Stones,
A drive down the Natchez Trace, the grandchildren, a trip to Asheville, dinner at the Grove Park Inn, then
Chaeli. You took her away from me.
Big Magic, Liz Gilbert, with Ann Padgett.
Then Heidi Deering. You gave her to me.
It’s a Wonderful Life, Studio Tenn at The Factory.
Writing opportunity—essay turned in to editor, to be published in an anthology of 22 women writers next year.
The ring and the engagement, Corey and Leah.
2015—You took harshly and you gave sweetly. You made me cry, and you gave me squeals of joy.
My dear friend Chance Chambers says it best:
“2015—you burned in the best and worst ways,
raised and silenced voices with equal voracity,
gifted me beautiful friends and intoxicating opportunity . . . ”
Welcome, now, 2016—you clean slate, tabula rasa, you second chance, you great big gift of freshness!
May we all keep up the journey, walk across the upcoming 366 stepping stones, one foot forward at a time, head high, eyes on the sky, eyes on the Light. We’re all in this. Pushing forward. Stumbling. Falling. Skipping and skating smoothly. Let’s do this. Let’s make it a good one.
Peace. Joy. Love. To all!
“Incoming.” I sat on the couch cradling my thirteen-week-old puppy.
BOOM, crackle, fizzle.
Neil and I were going out to New Year’s Eve dinner in Brentwood, and I’d be leaving puppy Heidi for a while.
I had just taken her out to potty, when I heard a thunk, and a mortar went off, spearing high into the sky over Wades Grove, with beautiful colors sparkling and cascading down, all accompanied by a boom loud enough to rock the earth I stood on.
Too big for a neighborhood, I thought. Houses too close to each other for this.
The puppy writhed and wiggled and screamed. I put her down, and she ran to a corner between the fireplace and back wall and tried to burrow herself into the ground.
“She was digging a foxhole,” Neil said. He’s a Vietnam veteran who spent a lot of time in foxholes yelling, “Incoming!” I edited his book last summer about the war and remembered some of the lines:
“Then I heard the whump. Then another and another. Mortars firing. Incoming. Be on our heads in seconds. I yelled . . . ‘Incoming! Getcher ass in the hole!’ Others in my platoon were now yelling . . . A mortar round exploded behind me . . . More mortar rounds exploding, more whumps of incoming. Big explosions . . . Tracer bullets spearing red lines through the blackness both directions from M16s and AK-47s. Flashes of explosions.”
It was like we were at war in Wades Grove.
The puppy refused to go outside the rest of the evening. I tried to take her a few times, and when I neared the back door, she screamed and writhed in my arms. She kept looking up at the ceiling, like something was going to fall and harm her. Neil, a teddy bear of an old veteran, watched and understood how she felt. We were both saddened because a tiny, happy, well-adjusted puppy will carry some PTSD with her for hopefully not too long.
I’ve heard others talk about how their dogs were deathly afraid of fireworks, but I’ve never seen anything like what I experienced the last day of 2015. My previous cocker spaniel was sixteen and deaf for three years, so she slept right through every fiery-celebrated holiday.
Fireworks are legal in my town. It doesn’t matter that some of the houses in neighborhoods are ten or fifteen feet apart. Your neighbor is allowed to shoot mortars and rockets that land in your yard or on your roof. Some of the warnings on those rockets even talk about re-ignition.
I love fireworks. I go to planned celebrations, and I’m there on the sidelines if and when neighbors are shooting off fireworks safely. But I’ve been a little nervous since in my previous neighborhood, where fireworks were not legal, several years ago someone a distance away shot off a big, fat rocket that stuck five inches deep in my front yard only five feet away from my porch and roof. I tried to pull the stick up and could not. “I’m calling the police,” I told my husband. “If this had landed a few feet shorter, we’d have the hose out trying to extinguish a fire right now, and we’d have roof damage that somebody would have to pay for. This is too much.” He agreed, and he never agreed to anything that was over the top. The policeman struggled a bit to pull the rocket stick up, then drove in the direction of the shooters. Not sure who they were or if he ever found them.
This morning, I found a Fire Dragon 8-oz. rocket in my driveway. Nobody on my street was shooting fireworks. It came from afar.
No wonder my puppy was afraid. It was in her yard! On her property!
There are some fireworks appropriate for neighborhoods and some that are not. The problem is that sometimes people don’t know the difference. Laws happen because people aren’t smart enough to determine which is which or responsible enough to make good decisions.
And they put their neighbors at risk.
I wonder who is going to clean all this up and return the sidewalk to normal.
I hope one day soon our mayor and aldermen will get up with the times. It’s no longer the day of firecrackers and those little fizzly, sprinkly sticks of fire sparks. It’s war, with mortars and rockets and big stuff.
I’m for pretty, but I’m also for safety.
Where am I now and where am I going in the next twelve months? I’m spending some days now looking at the real me, the one that was knitted together and protected and sheltered. The one carved out of hard wood, a sharp knife going around each curve and protrusion, even around the big veins on my hands.
There are things I like about myself. Things I love about myself. And of course, things I don’t. In the coming months, I hope to work on those.
There are things I wonder about. Are they flaws? Are they issues I need to work on? Or are they characteristics burned out of the fire and chiseled by the knife that others don’t like simply because they consider them out of their worldview of what a person, well, a woman should be?
I find that some of these characteristics are what I like best about myself.
Yet I find that one of my biggest flaws is knowing what some believe I should be and disliking myself because I am not that and can’t be that. This comes from my background in the church. I know I don’t have to answer to any person—only to my God. And who is it who carved those hands and around those veins and knuckles so intricately and around the wrist bone that sticks up a bit and the elbow that was once broken and around the calves on my legs, so shaped and defined and exactly like my grandmother’s and my father’s, but meant to hold my feet to the journey? I shouldn’t apologize for the person I was made to be.
Maybe in 2016 I can work on those hard, rough places I am aware of—those inner places that need more chiseling and chipping away and could stand to be smoothed out. I know where those places are. Am I resolving to walk the path alongside them and keep my eye on the goal and be the knife-edge and lay the blade down to do the work?
It’s just my luck, when traveling, that places I really want to see are closed on the day I am scheduled to be there or they close an hour before I arrive. Such was the case on my trip to Philadelphia PA earlier this week. I’ve wanted to go to the Daniel Boone Homestead since 2001 when my mother and I did genealogy on our Boone family. I knew the place was closed on Monday, but did not realize it was also closed on Tuesday. Tuesday afternoon, I had a flight out to Nashville, but Tuesday morning, we’d planned to visit.
Leah, Corey, and I rented a car and drove an hour northwest of Philly anyhow, to Birdsboro, not quite to Reading. The place was deserted, but half the gate was open for recreational walkers. We drove in and parked at the visitors’ center. Also onsite was an old house, a barn, a smokehouse, and a few other outbuildings. The house, of course, was locked, and all was closed up tightly.
“Let’s just walk down there anyway,” I said. It wasn’t what I came to see, but it was something, and something is better than nothing. At the barn in the distance, I could see a man herding some sheep. I figured he’d come run us off.
We walked around the house and took pictures, and then the two others walked back to the car, but I lingered, and the man approached behind me.
“Do you have any questions?” he said.
“I’m family,” I said. “I am here one day, from Nashville, and the Boones are my ancestors. I didn’t know the homestead was closed today.” I showed him pictures of George Boone III’s house I wanted to see and told him about my genealogy research.
My ancestor George Boone III, weaver and tanner, came to America from Stoak, England, in 1717. He was a friend of William Penn who had perhaps persuaded him to come to America.
“In 1720 they [George III, grandfather of Daniel Boone, and Mary] went to Oley Township, Philadelphia County (now Exeter Township in Berks County), where their daughter Sarah and family had moved earlier. In Oley Township, George III took out a warrant for 400 acres of land on December 20, 1718 and established his permanent home.”
That home has been torn down. In 1730 the son of George III, Squire Boone, purchased 250 acres and erected a log house and spring cellar. Then in 1750 the current stone house behind the visitors’ center was constructed on the log cabin’s foundation. My seventh great grandfather was Joseph, brother of Squire. Joseph owned 400 acres near the road’s “jug handle” at the homestead’s entrance. Joseph bought Squire Boone’s land in 1750 when the latter moved to North Carolina. Maybe the land this stone house was on?
The man pointed to the house. “This was where Daniel Boone (son of Squire Boone) was born and raised. Do you want to go inside?”
“I would love to.” I motioned for Corey and Leah to come, as well, as the man went to get his keys. The house was built over where Daniel had lived back in the 1700s.
Interestingly, there were five intermarriages between the Boones and Lincolns in Berks County, Pennsylvania. The Boones and Lincolns stayed together in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky, and Indiana. Mordecai Lincoln’s son, Abraham, married Anne, daughter of James Boone and Mary Foulke. Mordecai Lincoln’s grandson, Abraham, was a friend of Daniel Boone. Abraham Lincoln’s grandson, also Abraham, became the 16th president of the United States of America.
We had a full tour of the house, with explanations and historical details. They actually make period clothes from the sheep on the farm, and the man leading our tour makes period buttons for the clothes. I think he was wearing a jacket made on the farm. He was also a history teacher. He asked us if we wanted to go into the basement—the original part of the house, where Daniel Boone lived.
Oh yes, we did. Dark, low, with a spring running the length of the old stone cabin—inside.
I dipped my fingers in the cold water of my roots.
The man drew a map and told us where the Exeter Meeting House was, where probably three of my many-great grandfathers are buried. The Boones were Quakers. In accordance with the custom of the Friends Society, no stones were placed on their graves. By 1817, the burying ground was filled. As no additional land could be purchased, dirt was hauled in and filled to a depth of four feet, and a second tier of graves was begun.
Markers onsite read:
HERE ARE BURIED DISTINGUISHED PIONEERS AND FOUNDERS OF BERKS COUNTY
THIS TABLET IS PLACED BY THE RELIGIOUS SOCIETY OF FRIENDS
NO. 36…THE HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF BERKS COUNTY 1944
FRIENDS MEETING HOUSE AND BURYING GROUND
ANCESTORS OF PRESIDENT ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND DANIEL BOONE ARE BURIED HERE.
HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF BERKS COUNTY 1915
We had a picnic lunch at the Meeting House on a table beside the cemetery under ancient trees. We observed the slope of land where dirt had been hauled in and built up to support more graves on top of the old ones. A gentle breeze reminded me that this was holy ground, that family nine generations before me had walked on this very dirt. That means something to me.
It was from this location in Berks County that Daniel Boone asked my fourth great grandfather Jacob Boone, Revolutionary soldier, to go to Kentucky in 1799, where they founded and surveyed the town of Maysville. Jacob is buried there in the Pioneer Cemetery. My grandmother, Anna Bell Boone, was born in Maysville exactly one hundred years after its founding. I look down at those under me and their places in history, and I think about how wonderful it is to know these things and to be in the places they have walked and lived.
I picked up three chestnuts that had fallen from an old tree there [and got them through security] to remember the three greats who lived on Boone land and were buried at the Exeter Meeting House.