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There is an agonizing sweetness when I slip into the place between the worlds. When I look out the window at the street and the houses, and it could be fifty or a hundred years ago. The birds I hear as I lie awake in the early dawn could be singing in another time or place. I could have been alive for 150 years. And I feel outside of time, as if I could pass between the years at will. I don’t know whether this sweet agony is a yearning for the past, for something lost… or the sorrow of knowing I must, soon, snap back to the realities of the present moment… or whether it is, ultimately, a yearning for heaven, where all that is lost will be restored, when all nostalgia and longing will be abated because all will be as perfectly beautiful as the most long-cherished memory of childhood’s clearest summer day.

I say the agony is sweet because I want to follow to the mysterious somewhere to which it leads, like the child lured away in the poem by Yeats, “with a fairy hand in hand, for the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” But my obligations in this life call me back… There is a pull toward dwelling forever in that twilight place where the past– the past of my youth and the more distant past of my ancestors– calls me to linger there. Or maybe it isn’t the past; but then, where is it?

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight…

woman in garden

And I wonder, If I just let myself keep going… going… shaking off the impatient tug of the present urging me to return, then, where would I…?

But the painful truth is, that to reach heaven, where this sweetness will last forever in an eternal present, when there will be no painful tearing away, there is no choice but to return to this life, to this time, no choice but to endure it. The only way out is through. And that is so painful, for the way is long and I am a stranger in a strange land where no stone under my foot speaks to me, no field or meadow knows my name, and even the trees sigh a foreign language.

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Beauty presses on, no matter what I do to thwart it.

I don’t mean to thwart it. In fact, I am always filled with desires and plans and ideas for bringing a little bit more beauty into the world. But somehow, it doesn’t often work out.

For example, one of my beautification programs concerns gardening. We have a tiny yard, too small for baseball games or other activities requiring a lot of space. I am always trying to think of ways to draw us, especially the children, into the outdoors, hence the chickens to tend, the swimming pool to play in, and, well, this gardening idea.

Every winter, I pore through gardening books and seed catalogs planning how to turn our tiny yard into a garden paradise. I am studying herbology, so winding paths passing through fragrant mounds of medicinal and culinary herbs appeal to me, along with blueberries and raspberries like those my mother tended at my childhood home in Branford, flowers for the butterflies, and maybe, perhaps next summer, a bee skep. Not an ordinary box-like beehive mind you, but one of those old fashioned spirally bee-skeps that Yeats must have envisioned when he wrote “The Lake Isle of Innisfree:”

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

This is perhaps my favorite poem. It encapsulates so many of my dreams as I “stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,” when my heart is away by the lapping water, the bee-loud glade, the evening full of linnet’s wings. In those winter hours spent perusing gardening books, I imagine turning our tiny yard into a haven of beauty, afresh with herbs and fruits and flowers, alive with lovely living things, where peace indeed comes dropping slow.

And when spring comes, I always make a start. I purchase some plants, turn over some soil, and manage to beautify one little corner, feeling hopeful and telling myself that soon I will do more. “Plant by plant” was the motto I adopted this year, the idea being that even if I could only manage a little at a time, by summer’s end my dream would be accomplished. Then, maybe this winter’s reading would be about the next step: beekeeping, in preparation for next spring…

But this year as every other, things stalled. The budget would not allow the purchase of more than a few plants. I saw some medicinal herbs I coveted– yarrow, mullein, comfrey– growing free for the taking by the roadway, but could not afford the composted manure to prepare a proper bed for them. The affordable Amish orchard from which I hoped to buy a few fruit trees had stopped selling for the season. The weeks-long drought made my little corner garden look weary and sad. Spring possibilities turned to midsummer dreams gone by.

I took a walk in the cool of one early morning, hoping to get in a little exercise before the heat set in. In a yard I pass often, a small pear tree had begun to bear fruit; tiny, burnished little pears had begun to develop on its boughs. Autumn is coming, I thought. Autumn will be here before I know it, home schooling will begin again, nature will fold its wings, and my garden dreams will die for another year. I had had grand plans, but I could not make them happen. I fought the discouraging voices that told me someone else could have managed it, someone more knowledgeable, more energetic, more skillful. In any case, I had failed to bring the beauty I dreamed of into the world. I had failed.

I looked at the pears, and for a moment, felt sad. Then I thought: Here I am, looking at these beautiful little burgeoning pears. Beauty presses on in spite of me. Life presses on. I smiled and thought of a verse from “How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” a verse that described the Grinch’s failure to stem the irrepressible arrival of Christmas Day:

It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
It came without packages, boxes, or bags!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming– IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!

And I thought: someone else COULD manage it, someone more knowledgeable, more energetic, more skillful: God. God has filled this beautiful world with life and loveliness. What I could not do without plants or manure, God accomplishes season after season, year after year, all around me. He just can’t help it. Seeing my sorrow over my garden, He wanted to say: I will give you beauty. Here it is, all around you.

So my garden dreams will keep for another year. But our Father, who never fails to give his children what they need, has strewn this world with beauty. I hadn’t stopped beauty from coming– it came. Somehow or other, it came just the same.

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When I was a kid in Pine Orchard Elementary School in Branford, I loved getting My Weekly Reader in school. Partly educational and partly tabloid-style journalism for kids, My Weekly Reader also offered a book club from which, one year, I ordered two items which greatly impacted my life.

The first was a set of ESP cards with an informational booklet on how to use the cards with their squiggly lines and geometric shapes to determine whether you or your friends possessed ESP (extra-sensory perception).

Not only did I score high on the test, but at the ripe age of 9, I corresponded for quite some time with one of the researchers mentioned in the booklet, who kindly took an interest in my fledgling abilities and sent me all kinds of articles on the paranormal.

The second item was the book Fog Magic by Julia L. Sauer. All through my life I have had a sense of a sort of timelessness (see my post “no lasting city”). The veil between past, present, and future is very thin and always shifting for me, and I found this book very affirming. In it, a young girl lives by the sea near a place where old houses used to be; only their cellar holes remain. But when the fog comes in, the houses reappear, along with a new friend from another era. For similar reasons, I love the old Dark Shadows TV series with its themes of time travel in which characters shift between past and present, and parallel time in which they live their lives in completely different ways simultaneously.

Given all the bad decisions I’ve made in my life, I cannot claim to have great psychic powers. But through the years, there have been enough incidents where I have “sensed” something that turned out to be true to confirm that I have at least some heightened perceptual ability. The Catholic Church clearly teaches that using psychic powers to manipulate others, to summon or channel spirits, for financial gain, or other negative purposes is taboo. Yet, we cannot deny the fact of St. Padre Pio’s well-documented telepathic abilities, for example. And a natural ability to “see” realities hidden in the past, present, or future is a gift from God that need not be written off as dangerous.

With God, there is no such thing as time.  God is eternal, with no beginning and no end, and all reality is present for God as one timeless moment. For example, Mary’s purity and sinlessness were foreseen by God, hence her being chosen to be immaculately conceived in order to become the mother of Christ. Our sins were foreseen by God, hence Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection over 2000 years ago are effective in our lives today. And it works the other way too; in his book Consoling the Heart of Jesus, Fr. Michael Gaitley explains that we can console Jesus now even though His passion is completed and He is happy in heaven, because just as He could foresee our future sins and our need of His salvation, He could anticipate our prayers, suffering, and sacrifices and be consoled by them during his agony.

I find myself lying awake most nights for an hour or three. This has become my most fervent time of prayer, a sort of nocturnal adoration when I pray for all the needs of my family and friends but also for the world. On a recent night, I received an image of my father. Dad was an Ivy leaguer turned enlisted Marine who fought in the Pacific theater in some of the bloodiest battles of World War II. I got a sudden image of him, a young man in his twenties, in a miserable jungle hellhole lying awake and longing for home. This image was so poignant and detailed that I knew I was being given a picture of something real. My father has been dead for over twenty years and the war ended decades before that, but I found myself praying to God to console this young Marine, my future Dad, to give him courage and peace, faith and consolation. I prayed that he would not be afraid, and that Jesus would keep his loving hand on him through the terrors of the night in that hostile place so far from home. And somehow, I knew that my prayers had real effect, that through God’s timelessness, they reached back to the jungles of Okinawa circa 1945 and consoled that young soldier. Somehow, it wasn’t too late.

This timelessness of God.  I am at a kind of crossroads in my life, where at the age of 50 the curtain seems to be falling on certain possibilities, certain cherished dreams. I have been wrestling with accepting these perceived limitations, and at times, the future has seemed destined to be a wasteland of one renunciation after another, “a perfect graveyard of buried hopes” as Anne of Green Gables would say. But these past couple days, in the midst of moments of fear or discouragement, I have been getting sudden flashes of the limitlessness of God. There is a road I travel frequently with beautiful homes from which I usually have to look away lest I go down the rabbithole of dissatisfaction; yesterday I drove past and found myself smiling with a sense of eager anticipation instead of envy. There are places I’d like to go that I scarcely allow myself to think about any more because they seem out of reach; but yesterday, I found myself actually mentally planning what I’ll do when I next go to, say, Ireland, as if it were a reality that could happen tomorrow. In truth, I may not know when it will be,  but there is no reason why it can’t happen! After all, I may be broke, but God is very, very wealthy. I may be getting older, but God says “Old? Don’t make me laugh!” Suddenly I have started waking up to this fact: God loves me! In fact, He is head over heels in love with me, and wants to shower gifts and blessings on me! He actually wants me to be happy. The same goes for you, my friend. Things may look one way now, but God has no limits. He is the clairvoyant par excellence, the time traveler uber alles, able to leap tall limitations in a single bound.  The veil of the present could tear away any moment and reveal an amazing, undreamt-of future. It’s never too late. It’s never too late. And don’t let anybody tell you different.

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I have figured it out.

I’ve figured out why I am never at home away from the water.

When I was a kid growing up in Branford, the onset of summer signaled the annual pilgrimage to Page’s Sport Shop on Main Street to pick up a copy of the Tide Table. The Tide Table ruled my life in the summer. It determined what time of day I would pedal my bike over to Hotchkiss Grove Beach or Branford Point in order to hit high tide and the best swimming with my friends who haunted the same beaches (we lived a barefoot, semi-feral existence in the summer months)….unless I wanted to combine swimming with a search for shells or seaglass or digging for clams, in which case it was a fine art determining when to hit the beach so that the tide would be coming in just when I finished collecting my treasures and I could once again make my home in the waves.

Some years ago, I saw the movie “The Secret of Roan Inish” which unfolds something like a fairy tale and includes, among many themes, the Celtic myth of the selkie– if indeed a myth it be. A selkie is a seal who can assume human form by removing its skin, though the sea always remains its true home. In the movie, a man discovers that the woman he has fallen in love with is a selkie. He marries her, hiding her sealskin to keep her on land, and she goes about in a state of wistful longing until she finally discovers the skin and returns to the sea.

Well, that explains it. I don’t live anywhere near salt water now, alas, but I am constantly seeking water…As I float along in one of the local lakes, invariably my eyes close and I imagine I am back at one of the craggy beaches in Connecticut, or in Nantucket, or Prince Edward Island. In a pinch, even a pool will do, as I have vivid powers of imagination. But always and everywhere, in lake or pond or rain puddle, I am seeking the sea.

In “The Secret of Roan Inish” there are scenes where seals are bobbing their heads above water, then disappearing beneath the surface, closely watching the doings of human beings from a safe distance. I saw a similar scene in Nantucket last summer when a family of seals appeared along the horizon line, popping up above the surface and then plunging back down to the depths. It reminded me of those days on the beaches of my youth, when Peter, Beth, Joey, and I, with whoever else might be there, played a game called Marco Polo, diving and surfacing over and over again trying to escape whoever was “it.”

I’ve figured out my true identity. And why I am always homesick away from the water. And why I am always just a little outside the world of human beings.

If I could just find where that sealskin is hidden.

(Painting by Jessica Shirley. Visit her art blog: http://www.jessicashirley.blogspot.com/)

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Alas, there was no winner for my first Giveaway Quiz. Maybe I’ll try this again sometime, but for all of you who are dying to know, here are the answers to last Friday’s quiz:

1. The drawing room in the post “the wounds give life” was the drawing room in the old TV version of “Dark Shadows” which ran from the late 60s to the early 70s. I always felt right at home there!

2. My banner photo shows Flirtation Point in Pine Orchard, Branford, Connecticut.

3. The town in the first photo in “no lasting city” is Greenfield, Massachusetts. That’s Main Street, and the current name of the business on the right is Baker Office Supply.

4. The artist of the sketch in “failure” is Vincent Van Gogh.

5. Besides the New Testament, St. Therese always carried a copy of the Imitation of Christ by St. Thomas a Kempis.

6. Three books Branfordgirl likes: see my sidebar for a selection of books I like which are available on Amazon (and Branfordgirl will earn a few pennies if you navigate there from this site and make a purchase). I also listed a number of books in my post “it’s all for you.”

7. What’s so special about Branford, Connecticut? Well, here’s my answer: it’s Branfordgirl’s hometown!

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When I was growing up, we lived with my grandmother, Alice Weisheit Collins. Her husband, Jeremiah (“Pop”) Collins, had died before I was born, and my grandmother was the matriarch of the family. She was a gourmet cook and talented gardener of naturalized perennial flowers. I had lived on my own for years before I realized that the reason everyone’s yard did not have beautiful fairy bowers, mounds of blue iris against a backdrop of mint, and other wonders like those I romped through in my youth was because of Angy’s unique skill at making the plants look like they had appeared on their own.

Angy was the organist at my childhood parish, St. Mary Church in Branford, Connecticut:

This photo is of the church (and rectory to the left) that I knew in my youth;  it was destroyed by arson in the early 1970s and replaced with the more modern structure that exists today. But back in the day, every week my grandmother mounted the ancient steps to the organ loft to play the organ at Sunday Mass.

The highlight of every year was accompanying Angy to the annual Cat Show held at the Branford Armory. (Another day I’ll tell you about the time my friends and I painted flowers and peace symbols all over the army tank on display on the Armory lawn in 1980, just before we left for college. From then right up until the tank was– sadly– removed last year, if you looked carefully, you could see that the swirls of the camouflage paint were carefully applied to cover our artwork).

We were a “cat family” and the cat show was a wonderland of Abyssinians, Persians, Siamese, Manx, Russian Blues, and other exotic breeds.  Angy, my sister Julie, and I spent hours admiring the felines, watching the judging, picking our favorites. The event had only one flaw: the maddening repetition of exactly ONE song, over and over again, on the sound system. That song was Mairzy Doats, and after hearing it ten, twenty times and more in succession, it was over a week before you could get it out of your head:

My grandmother was a soprano who, in 1920, founded the Branford Musical Arts Society, an organization which fulfills its original purpose to this day:  to promote the love of music in the town of Branford. She also gave singing lessons in our home, although for the privilege of taking lessons with Alice Collins, her students– the sopranos, anyway– would have to tolerate being accompanied by the howling of our dachshund, Handsome Dan. But despite her quirks, Angy was a legitimate musician.

However, the day after the Cat Show, Angy must have been a little distracted up in the choir loft. The Processional and the Offertory were the usual traditional Catholic hymns. Even the first Communion hymn was nothing out of the ordinary. But a few moments later, as I returned from receiving Holy Communion to piously take my place in the pew, Angy’s fingers started wandering over the organ keys, and I heard– perhaps unnoticed by others but unmistakeable to someone who had attended the Cat Show– the lilting strains of Mairzy Doats.

Granted, there is a Lamb reference in the piece. So maybe it can be justified somehow. I had always thought my grandmother was distracted by that maddening song and had started playing it subconsciously. The truth is, she played it for us, Julie and I. A little bit of grandmotherly humor from the organ loft. That’s liturgical music– Branford style.

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ImageThe dream came night after night. In the dream, I sat bolt upright in the bedroom I shared with my sister in the house in Branford that was built by my Irish great-grandfather. I turned, my feet touched the floor, and I was on my way down the narrow wooden stairs to the drawing room. I stood at my usual post before the window with the filmy, cigarette-smoke tainted curtains from which I could see every doorway that led from this darkened room. This was the worst part; as I stood watch, the noise became unbearable. It was the hum of the oil burner. In daylight, activity and conversation would drown out the sound; it was scarcely noticeable. But tonight, as I stood alone in my nightgown with bare feet on the cold wooden floor, keeping vigil while the house slept, it grew louder, louder, almost deafening, but I stood firm. Then, the dream faded and I awoke.Image

Years later, I recounted this dream to my sister, the dream that haunted me every night as a young girl. What she said gave me a chill: “It wasn’t a dream. You really did that. I remember it. You were sleepwalking.”

It made my blood run cold to think that what I thought was only a scary dream had been a nightly reality. At age five or six, I had become the nocturnal guardian and protector of my family.

My parents were loving but troubled. My mother, one of nine children of Polish peasants and the only one with a college education, was highly intelligent and had a poetic soul, but she was a drunk. My father, a Yale grad with a keen Irish sense of humor, was shell-shocked and tormented by memories of his experiences as a Marine on Okinawa and Guadalcanal during World War II. There was rarely enough money, things were always a bit precarious, and though I treasure countless delights and happy memories from my childhood, there was always the sense that something…might….happen.

I recently read something interesting about sleepwalking: during sleepwalking, the person arises and performs, in a low state of consciousness, activities that are usually performed during a state of full consciousness. Yes. That makes sense. I remember being invited to a sleepover at a friend’s in Hotchkiss Grove, but a couple of hours into the evening I had to call for a ride home. I had to be there; I was afraid my parents would not be okay without me. That something would…happen. At bedtime each night, I would line up my many stuffed animals to kiss each one goodnight, making sure not to miss a single one of my charges because, well, they would be sad, and something might…well, you know, happen. As adults, my siblings and I have joked about what we call the “Collins hyper-vigilance,” a trait we all share to some extent. Even our family coat of arms bears the image of a pelican plucking its own breast, while our family motto is Dant Vulnera Vitam: The Wounds Give Life.Image

The wounds give life.Those words bring others like them to mind. Isaiah 53:5 reads:

But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, Upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.

And I Peter 2:24 tells us,

He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.

Jesus suffered so that we would be healed of sin, so that we would have eternal life. Alone on the cross, He held back the tide of evil that threatened us. In the Mass, like the pelican plucking its own breast to feed its young, He feeds us His own body and blood to give us life.Image

But there is more. When Jesus appeared to the Polish nun St. Faustina Kowalska, he revealed to her that what wounds His heart most deeply is our lack of trust in Him. He wants us to trust Him completely, so much so that he asked St. Faustina to have this image of His Divine Mercy painted, showing blood and water pouring from His side along with the words “Jesus I trust In You” so that we would never forget that He is standing watch:Image

The little Branford girl can go to sleep now. Jesus is there.

In peace I will both lie down and sleep;

for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety. -Psalm 4:8

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