Why Journal

Salty Snipppit   November 14, 2020      

   Something is happening across the street as I pass my wide living room window.  I stop in surprise.  Large golden-orange leaves scintillating in the morning sun are fluttering down, scattering with the wind, tumbling off across the grass.   They look like big colorful sparkling snowflakes!   I cannot move on but must sit down and watch this show of miniature fireworks. On my neighbors’ roof there’s a circle of leaves spiraling around as if they’re dancing and laughing together!  I cannot not-smile while watching all this.

   The German Protestant in me whispers desperately “Get back to work!”  But the real and wise me sits facing the window, breathing with a deep smile as I enjoy this final awesome autumn performance.

    Now the air is calm, only a few flutters happening.  The sun cranks up a notch and the low bushes by my window wave back at the sun.  The shadows of the great trees intensify and then fade, lengthen and shorten as the sun plays on this ever-changing scene.

   “Dead falling leaves” are often a metaphor for what we no longer need in our lives, but dead scintillating colorful leaves, dancing away – there’s a different spin!  Treasures!  Not to be tossed thoughtlessly but to be released with awareness and gratitude.

   This real-life metaphor says “Stop!  Say thank you.”  Journaling is one way to do this, to be aware of all experience as gift.  Every one of these forms/moments fed my life, made me bigger, as every leaf fed the tree. I may not have liked them all equally, but they all fed and made me into what I am. The Earth takes them back, making them food for other life. The Sun and Wind leave me free like a sleeping tree, soon to grow more and new and bigger.  The Sun and Wind and Earth continue to shine on us all, with love and joy and peace and beauty.

Buchenwald is Everywhere

Salty Snippet October 2020

I introduce to you Jacques Lusseyran and Jeremy Regard, who have come to live in me through Jacques’ writings.   In his autobiography And There Was Light  (Parabola Books.com), Jacques tells how he was blinded as a child, lived a rich and normal life until the Nazis entered Paris, and in January of 1944 at the age of 19 he was taken to Buchenwald concentration camp because of his work in the Resistance.  He also wrote a collection of essays, Against the Pollution of the I, and it is one of these powerful sharings I’d like to briefly describe for you.

    Jeremy Regard, known in the camp as “Socrates,” was a welder from a mountain village.  A small older man, Jacques heard of him and expected he must be highly intelligent, wise, or saintly, given the awe with which people spoke of him.  When Jacques finally encountered Jeremy, he was astounded to sense that Jeremy wasn’t really a thinker:  he told stories.  Jeremy walked through this barracks of a thousand men living where four hundred would have been crowded, men terrified, furious, confused, desperate, and Jeremy was calm and genuinely present with himself and with you.  He actually exuded joy!  To be near him “brings you back to yourself when you are about to disappear.”

   He was a Christian Scientist but never expounded on ideas.  In fact, Jeremy said many of these men would die from ideas.  Jacques saw this happen, especially those who thought they were in hell.

 Jeremy’s view was so different.  He was not a dreamer.  “The rest of us were dreamers: we dreamed of women, of children, of houses…We weren’t at Buchenwald.  We didn’t want anything to do with Buchenwald.”  …”His eyes were solidly fixed on all our miseries and he did not blink.” Nor did he have the air of a hero. 

   As Jacques tried to see with Jeremy’s eyes, he gradually saw that “Buchenwald was not unique…also that our camp was not in Germany…Buchenwald was in each of us.”  It was anywhere and everywhere when people live with a willingness to succumb to fear and to stop living fully where they are.

   Jeremy found joy in Buchenwald!  To be with him was to feel it inexplicably rise up inside one’s self again. “The joy of being alive in this moment, in the next, each time we became aware of it.  The joy of feeling the lives of others, of some others at least, against us, in the dark of night.” 

   Jacques:  “What I call supernatural in him was the break with habits.. of judgment which make us call any adversity “unhappiness” or “evil.””  Judgments which make us angry, complaining, feeling entitled to something better.  He had chosen to stand in “that which does not depend on any circumstance.”

Jacques ends this sharing by suggesting we all “put memory in quarantine.”  (a poignant turn of expression for us today!)  Images and ideas we hold onto of things that are not present now, judgments of comparison, standing in the past – these pull us out of the joy still possible anywhere.  However, a memory that nourishes, strengthens us to be present here – such as an inspiring person – this type of memory increases our presence now, allows the joy of being alive to arise anywhere.  Just as Buchenwald can arise in us anywhere if we choose the view of being deprived.

                                      -1999, Parabola Books, New York. “Poetry in Buchenwald” is another marvelous essay there of how sharing poetry helped people survive.  His autobiography is magnificent.  He was one of a very small number who survived Buchenwald – blind!  He actually survived because he was blind.  He learned that he received guidance all the time as long as he didn’t cloud his knowings with “anger, fear, or competition”!   -Marti Matthews

Poems for the Very Beginning of Spring, 2022

Skunk Cabbage 

[The very first “flowers” to appear in the woods, in wet places]

What fun to be a skunk cabbage!

Smells are one of Life’s delights.

Out in the bog

I could be a tiny center

unfolding into a huge grand leaf

reeking through with greenness,

  ever richer,

     ever smellier.

Life makes many dainty whispers through the woods.

But bursting through decay,

I’d chase the winter doldrums

  with my sensual call.  I’d shout around

   “Wake up!  Wake up, you sleeping woods.

Come alive again

   and feel and

     smell

       and play.

It’s time to start all over once again!

Spring Beauty  

[tiny early white flowers with pink stripes from the middle; esp. found around trees]

Spring Beauty,

most delicate of all spring flowers,

early to appear,

how lovely to be her!

Small and sweet and dear,

my five-petalled face with pink mint stripes

   will smile up like a shy girl-child

      at the awesome world around.

Simple and friendly,

I will open to the sun.

My thin stem will dance with the smallest breeze.

Never alone, I’ll live in a world of gentle friends

   like me,

all of us playing

in the sweet spring sun and wind and rain.

O beauty protected,

O tenderness extreme,

I will speak to all the world

of the great sensitivity

of The Source of all Life.

The First Fly of Spingtime   

  [I have another poem: The last Fly of Summer]

The first fly of springtime,

I welcome you!

My adversary through the heat,

you bode of sunshine now,

   warmth

     and fun for all.

Right now, my housebound

    winter heart says

Yay!

We’ve come awake again,

the both of us.

Buttercup 

Oh I want to be a buttercup!  A buttercup!  A buttercup!

O warm richness!

O passionate color!

O enthusiasm for Life!

I’ll plant myself by a watery place

  and laugh for joy.

I’ll glory in the singing birds,

the humming bees,

  the pesky flies,

    the tickling breeze.

And the sun’s salvation,

“Relish in the warmth of sun!”

my shining saffron face will sing.

“And don’t forget enthusiasm, passion.

Dance, swim, listen, sing, love,

  feel and sense.

    celebrate like me,”  I’ll laugh,

I, the cheerful buttercup!

The Power of a Smile

   Recently I gave a presentation to my Swedish Lodge ( for people of Swedish descent, who like to stay in touch with their Swedish-ness) on this subject:  “A Mystery:  The Life and Paintings of Carl Larsson.”  Larsson is remembered for the watercolors of his 8 children and his wonderful wife, Karin Bergoo, their happy life together in a warm cottage-like setting, outside picnicking in the woods, swimming and fishing, celebrating events, a happy family living a natural healthy simple life.  They actually began the movement of Swedes towards interior design based on wood, textiles, lots of light and simple design.

    The life Carl painted was truly happy for him.  But his life before Karin was just as truly terrible – a childhood of deep poverty, in housing surrounded by other suffering people of all kinds, an abusive drinking father, poor education, and the normal struggles of a young artist trying to find a way to make a living. I called my presentation “A Mystery” because I find it fascinating to try to understand how some people with terrible childhoods are still able to grow into normal functioning and HAPPY adults.  I read Carl Larsson’s short and beautifully written autobiography looking for clues as to how he managed to bring his life around.        Here is just one of the interesting clues I noted.

   In his early twenties he was ready to give up.  Here I’ll let him tell this little memory:

 “Once I was so sad, I had finally had enough of life, and in this mood I walked with heavy steps up the hill on Riddargatan.  But right then I met these two.  They were walking arm in arm, almost dancing downhill, she leaning against her beau with a tender smile, and he!  It cannot be described!  A broad gutta-percha face with the corners of the mouth each hooked onto its own ear, round glasses, and through them everything cheerful and joyous in life was glittering.  …I had never seen such genuine, unshakeable, real joy!  For me, that was a turning point.  I said to myself:  “It must be possible that earth is lovely.”  …Since then nobody has ever seen me exhibit a clouded face in the street.  I became convinced that it is the damn duty of each and every one to spread cheerfulness with a sunny face in public.  Even though…”  (p33)

   Even though – one carries terrible burdens and sadness inside.  The smiles on these two people had perhaps saved his life!  It seemed the least he could do, should do, to keep a cheerful countenance himself for the sake of others.

     I remember some touching moments in my own life that taught me something similar about how the smallest gesture to another can have much more power than we could guess.

    My small rural high school did not have enough students to offer tracked classes for “gifted”, “special needs,”  and such, so all abilities were glopped together.   My graduating class was 44 in number, some having dropped out immediately when they turned 16.  There were various students who kind of slept through classes, never did homework. I never judged them; they were just there with us all.   There was a boy named Jim Evans who was a “drugstore cowboy,” in our parlance – they wore their hair slicked back with sideburns, smoked behind the bank at lunch, but they didn’t do anything criminal.  Jim generally didn’t seem to do homework at all; he sat across from me, back one seat.

    One day the English teacher called on him with a simple question and he didn’t know the answer.  Red-headed chubby Phil sat in front of me and liked to put himself up with the know-it-alls whenever possible.  Phil turned around and said something snide and demeaning to Jim.  I just said something simple to Phil like, “Phil, turn around and mind your own business.”   That he did.

    At lunch I went with my friend Shirley to the town park; we were sitting on the grass under a tree talking when I noticed something fall into my lap.  A dandelion!  I looked up and there was Jim hurrying away but looking back at me briefly with a slight shy smile.  I was so surprised!  And I knew it was his way of saying “Thank you!”

    “Thank you” for what?  I hadn’t felt like any hero, hadn’t even mentioned the meanness in Phil’s comment, although it was true that I spoke because Phil was purposely being mean.  I often wondered after that what Jim’s life was like that such a small gesture in his defense could mean so much to him.  I knew that in the back country around our small town there was great poverty, parental neglect and abuse, so much hidden from the view of others.

   Another similar high school memory:  one day I went into the girls’ washroom; there were only two girls there, at the mirror.  Barbara and Sandra were somewhat “plain” in their looks and the clothes they wore spoke of serious poverty.  Sandra walked around with her head down and hanging forward most of the time; Barbara walked erect with her head up but all her movements were slow and quiet, like a person already tired and discouraged in life.  There was no one else in the room (Honestly, this might have affected me had someone else been there!) I never “hung around” with these girls, but they were okay to me and I just decided to speak to them.  I said something simple like, “Hi!   How are you?”  They both opened their faces into surprised smiles and nodded, mumbling back to me something like “Good,” still with their shy smiles. 

   I was mystified by their reaction.  When I thought about it later I realized that I was smart and generally liked and from a respectable family, the “other” part of the world to which they had no access.  For me to greet them like they were normal people seemed to change their feeling about themselves, like they were okay after all. 

    In my rural public school I missed out on academics that felt challenging enough but my heart received an education, over and over.  I dated one of those guys who slept through class and never did his homework.  His parents had died in a car accident when he was six and he went into the foster system where a local farmer took him in to help with farm work.  He got up at 4 am to do chores and therefor slept through class; the farmer was kind but no one cared if he did well in school.  His face was pockmarked from a rifle going off.   Now there was a guy with a good heart though.  When he turned sixteen he went into the army to find a life for himself.

   Another boy had been in my class for several years, doing poorly, and then about 12th grade I noticed he had dropped to the class below us; I realized this passing him in the hallway one day and he put his head down so maybe I wouldn’t see him.  Later in life I learned his father had been an alcoholic and ranted and abused him and one day had smashed a watermelon on his head. /  I remember also walking home in elementary school on the dirt road behind our house and realizing that a boy from my class was  living with his mother and 4 siblings in a chicken coop!  It literally still had chicken wire all around it.

   Well, my little missive was to encourage us all to share a smile or kind word wherever we go, regardless of what sorrows we carry inside. There is so much we do not know about why others appear as they do, what great burdens and limitations others live under, and smiling is so easy!  A quiet grin, a “Hi,” – the very least we can do and perhaps exactly what someone needs.

January 14, 2022

Honoring the Dead on All Souls Day

Today, November 2,  is All Souls’ Day, the Catholic equivalent of the Day of the Dead.

   I have a little stool in my bedroom where I place photos, funeral cards, newspaper articles of people I knew who have returned to spirit.  It’s a “Pile”, not neat as it should be, but covered with a beautiful shawl.  Today I took it out and went through “The Pile”, and one by one remembered and thanked each person.  I surprised myself as I began prioritizing them according to how deeply each person has affected me. Occasionally I explained this to the one in spirit.  I realized that quite a few VIP’S were not represented here so I’m gathering a list of these and will find a photo or letter to put appropriately in The Pile.

   A few I did not know personally but they’ve inspired me a lot, e.g. Harriet Tubman, Jacques Lusseyran, Pete Seeger, Helen Keller, John Woolman. Many writers of books have affected me deeply.  Once I saw in the Indy newspaper an article about an Afro American woman writer who lived an inspiring life and had passed to her rewards. I called a writing friend (Gail Mehlan) and we went together to her funeral, as complete strangers, but we felt moved to honor her.  I guess I eat people – they’re food for my soul – when they’re really meaty!

   I know I “should” do this with more care, maybe put all in a scrapbook.  But the river of my life flows on so fast!  This seems the best I can do, and it’s kind of “me.”  I mean – imperfect!  I appreciate all who have helped me be a better person, by their love or example, occasionally by their challenge or mistakes.  Everyone who touches me puts something in the pot for my rich life.

Go Where You’re Sent

                 Salty Snippet, August 2021     

  As news of problems all over the world becomes as available to us as our daily bread, perhaps others feel like me that we wish we could augment our influence to “make a better world,” to take away some of the endless unnecessary suffering, improve structures, eliminate greed, leave the world a better place when we walk on.  From the time I was an idealistic teenager, this is what I wanted to do.

  And yet, Life has its own weird ways.  As I stepped forward on my path, I found myself doing things similar to what my mother had done – raising a small family, helping neighbors and relatives as needed, I occasionally held jobs that influenced a few for the better in a larger community.  I’m tempted to feel disappointed in my small accomplishments against a large desire.

   By chance I’ve discovered the life of a Civil War hero named Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and find him inspiring.  Joshua Chamberlain seemed ordinary but was raised with a fine combination of caring for others, thoughtfulness, and self-discipline in the service of whatever seemed his highest duty. When war called him to serve in the cause(s) of concern in the Civil War, he left his job as college professor and quickly became a leader of a small group of soldiers from his native Maine. Under his leadership of courage, spontaneity, and complete service of their lives, altogether they did extraordinary feats which saved the day at Gettysburg and later left the South with honor and respect in the final surrender at Appomattox.  Actually, the whole picture of what ALL soldiers were giving in this extraordinary and costly war is an inspiration to me.  Chamberlain received the Medal of Honor; some of his men just died a terrible death.  The image I see is of duty wherever it leads one, discipline, courage to do as asked to the utmost.

  I also think of the amazing life of Nelson Mandela.  Twenty-seven (27) of the best years of his life were spent in a small prison, hidden away from the world, suffering much with a few friends.  Mr. Mandela stepped up to the plate and lived those years with the best strengths he could find inside himself.  When this test was finished, he stepped out strong, with enough self-discipline and dedication to duty to lead an entire country.  To CHANGE an entire country’s direction to the better.

   A third image guides me through my life– my grandfather.  He served his local small town in rural western Michigan running the local grocery store, founding a bank, serving on the School Board and the County Welfare Board, teaching adult Sunday school.  The local Republicans (including Gerald Ford) asked him to run for the state Senate during the Great Depression because they wanted someone who would stand up for education.  He agreed, ran, and became a State Senator. I was told that as chair of the Senate Education Committee he saved both Eastern Michigan University and Western Michigan University from being shut down by the Governor because of the depression.  At that time Senators were paid $2 a day and only when in session, so he continued to work in the family store when at home; but his brother who shared the store had begun drinking.  His brother said he would stop drinking if Grandpa left the Senate, and so – Grandpa did this (after 10 years as Senator).  There was no complaint as he returned to being a small-town grocery store owner.  There are many other stories I could tell you of seeing his humility and gladness to serve and help in any way that opened.  My mother told me that he took (free) groceries every week for many years to an old Black man who lived alone somewhere and no one knew he did this but my mother.  All his life, Grandpa kept himself in service to something larger than himself.

   Lastly, I am always awed at the life of Dag Hammarskjold, probably the greatest Secretary General the United Nations has had. Mr. Hammarskjöld suffered a great deal of loneliness in the diplomatic service to which he felt called. But in his diary, Markings, he expressed his commitment uniquely:

I don’t know Who – or what – put the question, I don’t know when it was put.  I don’t even remember answering.  But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.  (Whitsunday, 1961)

    I hold onto the images of these people as I turn back to my own “duties.”  I have an immediate family to nurture forward in their lives.  There are various people who look to me for support, encouragement, some people suffering or lacking resources.  There are organizations I can participate in to help my local community.  Service to a few individuals, a small area, does not seem like it will change the course of history, but this is what My Life assigns me to do.  If I were or will be called to do more, I will hope like Mr. Mandela and Grandpa and Joshua Chamberlain and Dag Hammarskjold to step forward and be as big as asked.  Or else to trust that what I do that appears small is still an important part of a larger movement of the world toward better and kinder and healthier for all.

   In my Quaker meetinghouse I love our very old carpeting:  The pattern is of beautiful octagons of a variety of designs, all touching each other, building a whole.  As I scan it all before me in the silence of worship, I see how we are each individual but are all a part of Something Larger that’s going on.  All we are required to do is to step up to whatever our life brings to us; this is our part in making the whole beautiful.

                      *******

Post Script:  Another life story comes to my mind that inspires me; she is the polar opposite of these above great people – Helen Keller.  You know who I mean, right?  Every American knows her. In the depths of our souls we carry her image of just Being what we are born to be, and sharing what we can.  Living her life heroically, she has affirmed the least among us.

The First Step in Writing Your First Book

Salty Snippet, July 16, 2021     

     What a plush job!  All I had to do was think of subjects to talk about so he could practice his American pronunciation.  His last name was Gustafsson, his sister’s last name was Gustafsdotter, which caused problems when they arrived at immigration to visit here together.  But I cannot remember his first name.  His grammar was perfect, and I learned many amazing facts about Iceland.

   For example, I was intrigued to learn that the actual religion of Iceland, underneath the façade of being Lutheran, was “The Dead” – they believe in the dead, and one in three Icelanders will go to a séance sometime in their life.  He had many intriguing stories on this…

      But he really caught my attention when he said that one in four Icelanders will write a book sometime in their life.  As a would-be writer myself, all kinds of questions jumped forward in my mind.

    “Well.  Who reads all these books?” I began. 

    “Oh, de valls of our houses are lined vid books,” he said.  “De vinters are long;  ve read a lot.”  (Many years later, in a trip to Iceland, I saw this was true!)

    “Well, what kinds of books do people write?”  I continued, questions stumbling over one another.

   “Vell,  whoops, WELL,” he said carefully, “Some people write ‘bout science or nature.  Or history. Or love stories or novels.  Lots of people write der own life stories…”

   Hmm!  Surprising to me.  How many life stories would publishers publish?  I asked him about this – “How do they all get their life stories published, and who wants to read endless life stories?”

   “Oh, if someone cannot find a publisher, dey print it demselves in der basement,” he described.  “And everbody who lives in der valley vill buy it ‘cuz dey vant to know de gossip in it!”

    Now I was really stopped.  Here in the U.S. of A., I had the impression that if you don’t know that your book will be a best seller, attract a big New York publisher, there’s no point in writing it at all.  You must somehow be sure that you’re going to be a success; then you write the book! It is a bit of a conundrum for a beginner.

    Young Mr. Gustafsson had given me a new platform to stand on:  Just write whatever interests me, or whatever I’ve learned in my life and want to share.  It doesn’t have to rock the world.  But if I’ve found it interesting there may be others who will, too.

   I have learned that there is a craft to telling a story in a more (or less) effective way.  As with all crafts, one learns it by doing it, accepting feedback, and noticing how others do the craft.  But the first step is to not worry about final “success.” Writing is, above all, a learning for the writer.  What has interested me most in my life and experience?  If something grabbed me, all I have to do is write it much the way I experienced it, honestly, humbly, completely and sensually, and then others may find it as interesting as I did.

Just go for it, make a stab. We can try to share what we have to share; then let that sharing have its own life to find others who may also be enlivened by it.

Walking in One Place

    Salty Snippet for June 2021    My Pal, The Red Geranium

  My giant red Geranium plant has lived probably longer than most house-gardeners would expect.  Back when I lived in Oak Park Illinois I planted her in the ground along the path to the garage.  That must have been just one summer, as her kind don’t last outdoors through winter. So – six summers ago she attracted my attention and I took her into my life.  As I prepared to move to Indianapolis, it seemed that she leaned towards me whenever I passed. I loved her in her spunky wild beauty and decided to bring her with.  I carefully dug her up from the ground, potted her, and she became part of the menagerie that I schlepped along to Indy.

   Geraniums are not strong physically; their arms and leaves break easily.  She was about a foot high at that point of her life, considered mature, and she made the 200-mile trip alright without much trauma or loss. Now six years later she is a good yard high and wrapped around supports, she’s maybe two feet in diameter.  I’ve fed and watered her, given her the best light available as she continued to grow.  I talk with her, kiss and hug her (largely), and she’s continued to raise my spirits by popping out with bright red blooms. I address her as “Pal.”

   Of late, each morning when I raise the shades and greet her, I’ve noticed increasing numbers of dried dead leaves on her; I pull them off and toss them.  I worry at the increase, but all seems well if there are also new leaves appearing – which there are!  And she still blooms, especially when she’s had plant food.

   Picking off the dead leaves, cutting off the dead flowers, seems healthy so she can focus her energy on the present moment of her life. And I’m surprised to see myself as in a mirror here.  I notice these days how the past seems to fade! Being a sentimental person, I hold tenaciously to memories of people, events, experiences – these are the treasures of my life!  I can’t believe how far behind and fading are memories that were so vivid and carried power for so long.  It’s as if I were walking a path and inevitably getting farther and farther away from the city of Oz. 

   Yet I feel I’m circling around.  I see Oz come up again as I walk along the yellow brick road, as if Oz is also my destination, plus its presence accompanies me. A place, with the same munchkins, to which I come and go and will return.

  But – right now there are things happening to attend to!  New people, unexpected events, always occurring around me. Also, surprising helpers magically appear, and I must pay attention to all.  Many little brown leaves of the past are best dropped by the wayside, experiences that enabled my growth “back then.”  They are now inside the bigger me. I don’t need to carry and feed their physical presence while I pay attention to what feeds my life right now.  My Pal and I – we keep “walking” on, even while we appear to stay in one place. We grow and bloom where we are – right now.