Pre-marital Poetry

In outer darkness once we dwelled

Of one another unknowing;

But once we’d been found, my joy swelled

And will not cease its growing!

And so we stand on the precipice,

Hand in hand and unafraid,

Asking God, who our trust is

To bless the plans we’ve made.

Looking to a rising sun

Ascending throughout its way.

Together seeing its course run;

The birth and death of a day.

There will be times of longing

Where we are sometime apart,

But let assurances be thronging –

You will always have my heart.

The Tenses of Grief

“How many siblings do you have?”

To most people, this enquiry is something of a commonplace “getting-to-know-you” question.  But for me, answering it is always rather awkward, and I honestly don’t always know how to reply.

You see, my oldest brother, Terry, was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1996.  He died three years later, on April 13th, the day before his twentieth birthday.  I was four, almost five, at the time.

Those are the bare-bones facts.  As it usually is, the reality is much more than that.  Here are a few more specifics: for treatment, our family went to St. Jude’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN.  Eventually, the brain tumor caused so much pressure on Terry’s eyes that he became blind.  As a result, he attended and graduated from the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston, LA.  In the face of all these odds, he also completed a quarter at Louisiana Tech University, majoring in education, because he “just loved little kids so much!”  He was (is?) my brother for the first four-and-a-half years of my life.  Yet, for all practical purposes, the date of his death is the most important one.  It is the reason I never know how to respond to the question, “So, how many brothers and sisters do you have?”

I have two older brothers.  But no, one of them is dead.  I had two older brothers.  But no, one of them is living.  I don’t even know what tense to use.  It’s always hard to know how to phrase my reply.

Perhaps: “I had two older brothers, but the oldest, Terry, died of brain cancer in 1999.”

No good.  I don’t want put an immediate downer on the conversation (“By the way, random acquaintance I’m making chit-chat with, I have a dead brother.”)

Or maybe: “I have one older brother.”

On the other hand, I don’t want to pretend like Terry didn’t (doesn’t?) exist.

For a while I tried using the cryptic reply, “I have two brothers, but only one living.”  I decided I didn’t like saying that.  If I am to mention that he died, I want to honor him with specifics.

I finally got up the courage to ask my middle brother, Adam, what he says to “the sibling inquiry.”

“Got up the courage” is the best descriptor I can think of.  Adam and I are very close, but he is ten years older than me, meaning we have something of a different sibling dynamic than many; I will still be the kid sister when I am sixty.  My parents didn’t raise us to be very touchy-feely anyway.  We don’t really talk about Terry’s death that much, if at all.  Mind you, we don’t scoot around his existence, but his death, I’ve come to realize, is something we as a family don’t necessarily refer to.  But we all have our own little bent ways of dealing with it—It only recently occurred to me that my dad’s parents always refer to him as “Little Terry.”

So anyway, I asked my brother Adam how many siblings he says he has.  He rambled a bit, but his final response was merely, “That’s a good question.  I don’t know.”

I just don’t know how to bring Terry up.  But inevitably it does come out, eventually, and, per manners, the response of the person I’ve told is something like: “Oh, I’m so sorry!”

Awkward pause.

The current silence-breaker I’m using right now, and that I’ve stuck with for a while, and that I think I actually like, is this: “Well, we’re Christians, and he was a Christian, so it’s all good.”  That’s the truth.  He’s in heaven.

Sometimes the acquaintance might uncomfortably ask some details about Terry’s illness and death, which I’ll answer matter-of-factly.

But there was one person’s response that quite honestly I still grow angry about when I think of it: the person asked how old I was when Terry died.

“Around five.”

And then, their response: “Oh, so you don’t even really remember him.”

It was not a question, “Do you remember him?” It was a statement that felt like a dismissal, and it made me furious (I don’t think I showed it, thankfully). Since then, others have made similar comments, and, when phrased as an inquiry, I’ve come to realize it’s a legitimate question; plenty of people don’t remember their two’s, three’s, or four’s.  But I do.  I have so many memories of my brother.  He loved the carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and used to sing it in an overly dramatic operatic voice.  Whenever we watched Disney’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, he would always growl along with Tigger as he pounced on Pooh, and then Terry would rewind the VHS and watch the scene over and over again.  At night, Terry claimed that the shower “waltzed” him into “Monkey Man,” and he would come out of the bathroom chattering like a monkey and chase me around the house.

These aren’t things I’ve been told.  I remember.  But, strangely enough, I don’t really have any big memories from when I was six, seven, or eight.  Oh, a few, but not nearly as vivid in comparison with my  earliest years.  And I think that’s God’s grace, that I remember Terry.

I  also remember his death, and the aftermath.  But, morbid as it might seem, I had a fantastic time at Terry’s funeral.  There were so many other kids there, and there was so much food, and there were so many people there, and I was so proud that they were all there because they all knew and loved Terry.

Looking back, I’m honestly not sure how much I understood about the reality of death.  At the funeral, I remember wondering why Mom was crying.  I don’t think I understood what my Mom knew, that Terry was gone, and that we were never going to see him again in this life.  But at the same time, I knew he was dead.  I just didn’t see that as a bad thing.  Mom had explained to me that since Terry was a Christian he was in heaven with Jesus, and that therefore we should give thanks.

As I child, I don’t remember missing Terry.  And honestly, in some ways I still don’t, callous as that might seem.  Since I was so young when he died, most of my life has been spent without him.  So, it’s not the same as say, losing a brother who is only five years older than you.  I don’t know if I’ll ever ask Adam about that.  All this is to admit that I’m sure my own grief is very much a child’s grief.

But.

I do grieve.  I grieve for what might have been.  I’m going to Texas A&M, the same school Terry was going to attend, before his diagnosis changed everything.  I want to have been able to tell him I was accepted and for him to be as excited as Adam was.  I want to play piano for Terry, and I want to pick out some guitar chords with him.  I want to tell him about getting a job.  I want to tell him about my hard-won A in symbolic logic.  I want to read him my writing.  I want to make him proud.  I just want to hang out and talk with him.

Instead, Adam and I are left strumming Terry’s old guitar.

I don’t normally dwell on this much, honestly.  Real life angst isn’t my style.  But during the spring of my freshman year at A&M, it seemed like I was thinking about him every hour of every day.  I don’t know what it was, but I just missed him.

I have read that sorrow is sometimes a physical pain, and it turned out to be true.  For me it was just a slight ache, but an ache in my chest that felt like it was in my very soul.  I don’t really know why I was so fixated on the fact that he was dead.  It’s like I forgot my old mantra that used to work so well: “He’s in heaven with Jesus.  That’s a good thing.”

But, thankfully, God so planned it that my campus minister preached a sermon that had to do with how messed up we as sinful humans are.  Mixed in the message was something about grief…I don’t remember the details.  But shortly after that, he and I were talking, and he asked how many siblings I had.

I told him.  One of my brothers is dead.

Then he said: “So, you understood what I meant about brokenness.”

I nodded.  “Yeah.”  Because I did.

Whenever we as a family (my parents and my brother) sit at the dining room table, I have this nagging feeling that there ought to be a fifth place setting.  But there’s no longer a reason to put it there, and hasn’t been one for almost fifteen years.

He asked more specifics.  How old were you?  Five.  How many years older was he than you?  Fifteen

Then he said something that I still think is the best response I’ve ever gotten from someone: “So, I’m thirty-five.  He would have been about my age.”

Yes.  Yes, he would have.

I liked this, this simple acknowledgement that Terry existed, that he was a real person with real connections, that he is gone, and that there is a grief and brokenness that cannot be tidied under the mat of polite conversation.

That was as far as our conversation got that day, but shortly afterward I attended a Freshman Bible study, and the same minister talked about a passage in Revelation.  The part about how one day every tear will be wiped away.

Since then, I haven’t forgotten that Terry was in heaven with Jesus, that I will see him again, and be able to say, without reservation, that I have two brothers.

The Sleeping Shepherd

“The world don’t need any more songs,” said Bob Dylan in a 1991 interview. “As a matter of fact, if nobody wrote any songs from this day on, the world ain’t gonna suffer for it. Nobody cares. There’s enough songs for people to listen to, if they want to listen to songs.”

Despite this somewhat pessimistic assessment, Bob Dylan has continued to write incredible songs, one of my favorites being “Ring Them Bells.” This dirge-like song (beautifully performed by Sarah Jarosz on the album Follow Me Down) uses several kinds of artistry to communicate its message.

FollowMeDownAlbumArt

(the song’s lyrics can be found here, but I highly recommend just listening to the song…)

The Artistry

Ring them bells ye heathen from the city that dreams
Ring them bells from the sanctuaries cross the valleys and streams
For they’re deep and they’re wide
And the world’s on its side
And time is running backwards and so is the bride.

“Ring Them Bells” conveys this message using a number of poetic devices. The rhyme scheme employed is fairly normal—the first two lines rhyme, and then the following 3 lines also rhyme, combining to form a verse. There are three verses and then a bridge section, followed by the final verse of the song. All of this fairly standard song structure. There are two obvious instances of alliteration in the song, where Dylan writes, “where the willows weep” and “they’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong” (Jarosz 14, 26). There are plenty of examples of rhyming vowel sounds in this song, especially in the repeated phrase “Ring them bells.” Also, “Ring them bells for the time that flies” contains rhyming vowel sounds. Dylan also uses personification extensively, mostly in a subtle way, speaking of a city that dreams, willows that weep, and time that flies (Jarosz 5, 14, 20). These actions, typically ascribed to people, are associated with inanimate objects and ideas throughout.

Of all the artistic elements employed in this song, however, allusions are probably the most prominent. This song is brimming with historical allusions, with references to Saint Peter, Saint Catherine, and Martha. One of the more prominent apostles, Peter was a witness to Jesus’s miracles, as was Martha, who saw Jesus raise her brother Lazarus to life. St. Catherine (of Alexandria, presumably) was a martyr in the early church. Also, the song also makes reference to “the bride,” who in the Bible is understood to symbolize the church—the bride of Christ. Shepherds and sheep are also allusions to the Bible. Other allusions reference Hinduism when the first verse speaks of the “sacred cow.” These allusions and the other poetic devices contribute to the tone of “Ring Them Bells,” a solemn tone—not dark or angry yet also not light or carefree.

The Meaning

This solemn tone is appropriate given the gravity of the message being conveyed. At first glance this song appears as indecipherable as some of Dylan’s earlier work (“All Along the Watchtower” comes to mind). However, on closer examination the song appears to be directed towards Christians. The ringing bells represent a summons to the church to start behaving like it’s supposed to. The first verse says that “Time is running backwards and so is the bride.” When “the bride” is understood to mean the church, this implies apathy within the church—it is “running backwards” (Jarosz 5). In the second verse St. Peter is called to ring the bells where the “four winds blow,” harkening perhaps to Jesus’s words to the apostles in Mark 16:15 where he commands them to “proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” The third verse reinforces this idea when it says that “the shepherd is asleep…and the mountains are full of lost sheep” (Jarosz 15).

The shepherd, if understood to mean the church, isn’t doing his job. He’s asleep, and as a result there are lots of sheep wandering around lost. These lost sheep might be people who were in the church who left, or they might be people who have never heard the gospel. Dylan is saying, in a very subtle way, that the church needs to wake up and start doing what it’s supposed to, because the end is coming and the futures of others are in some sense in the hands of the church—it’s the church’s job to tell people the truth. In the final verse, Dylan laments that “they’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong,” which could be interpreted as an indictment against the moral relativism common in society today.

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan

“Ring Them Bells” is a beautiful song that is packed with meaning. Probably no one will ever fully understand it, but this is a song that uses a variety of poetic devices to make its point. Perhaps the world doesn’t need any more songs, but this one is inarguably beautiful. After stating in a 1991 interview that the world didn’t need any more songs, Dylan concluded by saying, “There’s enough songs. Unless someone’s gonna come along with a pure heart and has something to say. That’s a different story. But as far as songwriting, any idiot could do it.” While this assessment isn’t pleasant to hear, I think aspiring songwriters, poets, and even writers (such as myself) would do well to pay attention!

Note: this post is a revised version of a song analysis essay I wrote for an English class recently, revised per my professor’s remarks and my own discretion 🙂

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Works Cited

Jarosz, Sarah. “Ring Them Bells.” 1989. By Bob Dylan. Follow Me Down. Sugar Hill Records, 2011, CD.

The English Standard Version Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Zollo, Paul. “Bob Dylan: The Song Talk Interview.” Bob Dylan: The Song Talk Interview. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.

Heights of Success

Mount Everest

A little dark-haired boy sat in his house in Auckland, New Zealand, reading adventure books, his vivid imagination bringing the heroes of the stories to life (Brennan).  These heroes, who seemed to possess abilities and virtues beyond those of ordinary men, made the boy dream about going on an adventure himself (Coburn 18).  Seven years later and over 8,000 miles away, a small, two-year-old boy sat at the Cleveland Municipal Airport with his parents.  His eyes were glued to the airplanes landing and taking off; he was so fascinated that he was not ready to leave when his parents took him home (Kramer 13).  No one who had seen these two boys as children would have guessed what they would grow up to do.  These two boys were Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong, modern-day adventurers, one who climbed to the top of Mount Everest, and one who traveled to the moon.

Mount Ruapehu
Mount Ruapehu, New Zealand

Both Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong’s childhoods helped to prepare them for their future careers.  On July 20, 1919, Edmund Percival Hillary was born to Percival and Gertrude Hillary in Auckland, New Zealand.  His father was a beekeeper and his mother was a teacher.  Together, Hillary and his brother Rex helped their father with the family beekeeping business, which Hillary really enjoyed because he liked to be outdoors (Brennan).  Hillary visited his first mountain, Mount Ruapehu, on a skiing trip when he was 16.  Four years later, Hillary climbed to the top of a mountain for the first time in New Zealand’s Southern Alps.  Neil Alden Armstrong was born on August 5, 1930 at his grandparent’s Ohio farm to Stephen and Viola Armstrong.  His flight to success began when he was six and rode in an airplane for the first time.  Fascinated by flying, Armstrong started working jobs after school as soon as he was old enough.  The money from these jobs paid for flight lessons, and when he was 16-years-old, Neil Armstrong received his pilot’s license.  One year later, Armstrong left home to earn a degree in aeronautical engineering at Purdue University on a scholarship from the United States Navy (Hansen).

Soon, however, the careers of both of these men came to a halt as war intervened.  24-year-old Edmund Hillary was working in his father’s beekeeping business when World War II exploded in Europe.  Although he was not obligated to join the New Zealand army because farmers were exempted, Hillary still volunteered and served as a search-and-rescue navigator in the Pacific Ocean for the Royal New Zealand Air Force until he was wounded and sent home.  After recovering, Hillary helped his brother with the beekeeping business, and began to climb mountains again (“Sir Edmund Hillary”).

Armstrong Flying a Navy Panther Jet
Armstrong Flying a Navy Panther Jet

Neil Armstrong was studying at Purdue University when the United States Navy sent him to train as a combat pilot in Florida.  Soon after, the Korean War began and Armstrong traveled to Korea to fight.  During the course of the war, Armstrong flew 78 combat missions in Navy Panther jets.  He was honorably discharged in 1952.  Three years later, he completed his degree in aeronautical engineering at Purdue (Hansen).

Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong each accomplished feats that no one had ever done before.  Upon restarting his mountaineering, Hillary’s work became a landslide success.  He traveled to Europe and conquered mountains in the Austrian and Swiss Alps.  Returning home, Hillary joined a mountaineering organization and climbed Mukut Parbat, a 23,760-foot tall Himalayan mountain, on July 11, 1951, which marked the start of his career in the Himalayas (“Sir Edmund Hillary”).  Before long, a British team invited Hillary to join them on an expedition to ascend Mount Everest, the highest place on earth (“Sir Edmund Hillary”).  Earlier attempts to climb Everest began from the north, but communist China had conquered Tibet and closed it to foreigners.  So, in August, 1951, Hillary helped explore the southern slopes of Everest for a new place to ascend the mountain.  Two years later, with a Sherpa mountain-climber named Tenzing Norgay, Hillary set out to overcome Mount Everest.

Left to Right: Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay
Left to Right: Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay

The expedition was dangerous and required oxygen tanks and masks and warm clothing to keep Hillary and Norgay alive at Mount Everest’s frigid and oxygen-deprived summit, around 29,002 feet above sea level, but, after days of climbing with the British team, Hillary and Norgay struck out alone for the last time.  It was May 29, 1953.  At about 11:30 in the morning, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay stepped onto Mount Everest’s snowy summit (Dempewolff).  Excitedly, Hillary snapped a photograph of Tenzing holding the flags of India, Nepal, and Britain on an ice axe and took pictures of the view from Everest to prove that they had actually reached the peak of the giant mountain (Coburn 33).

After his graduation, Neil Armstrong became a civilian test pilot and flew the X-15 rocket airplane, but, in 1962, he left airplanes behind him and signed up as an astronaut for NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Hansen).  He first flew in space in 1966 with his partner astronaut, David R. Scott.  On this mission, they successfully docked two vehicles in space for the first time.  Seven years later, Armstrong was the captain of the Apollo 11 mission.

Apollo 11 Crew
Left to Right: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin

At 9:32 in the morning on July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 lifted off from Florida and rocketed towards the moon.  Four days later, with the help of his crew, Edwin Aldrin Jr. and Michael Collins, Armstrong landed the lunar module Eagle on the moon (Hansen).  Climbing down the Eagle’s ladder in his stiff spacesuit, Armstrong stepped onto the moon and said to the world listening miles away on the radio “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” (Baxter).  Armstrong and Aldrin spent around 20 hours on the moon, taking samples of the soil, photographing the moon, and planting the American flag, in contrast to the 20 minutes that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay stood on top of Mount Everest.

Although cresting Mount Everest and walking on the moon are Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong’s crowning achievements, their careers did not end there.  Soon after climbing Mount Everest, Queen Elizabeth II of England knighted Hillary.  In 1957 and 1958, Hillary began a new adventure.  Sir Ernest Shackleton, one of Hillary’s childhood heroes, had failed in his attempt to cross Antarctica (Coburn).  Now, Hillary joined an expedition, led by Sir Vivian Fuchs, to finally complete Shackleton’s dream.

Sir Ernest Shackleton
Sir Ernest Shackleton

The team succeeded in crossing Antarctica from the McMurdo Sound to the South Pole, 14 years after Shackleton’s expedition (Dempewolff).  Another adventure Hillary participated in some years later was an expedition up the Ganges River to find its source (“Sir Edmund Hillary”).  In addition to these explorations, Hillary established schools, hospitals, and clinics in Nepal and helped to protect the environment around Mount Everest, which tourists had damaged after his successful climb.  Sir Edmund Hillary died on January 11, 2008 at the age of 89, 55 years after conquering Mount Everest.

After Armstrong’s return home from the moon, the world showered him with honors.  He received the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awards from NASA, and recognition from countries all around the world (Baxter).  Resigning from NASA in 1970, Neil Armstrong earned a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering at the University of Southern California, taught aeronautical engineering at the University of Cincinnati, and later worked for an electronics manufacturer (Hansen).  In 1986 Armstrong helped to improve the astronaut program when he became the vice chairman of a presidential commission which investigated the Challenger space shuttle disaster.  After years of hard work flying airplanes and spaceships, Neil Armstrong retired in 2002.  He died on August 25, 2012, 43 years after he walked on the moon.

From their childhoods onwards, Sir Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong were being prepared for their future exploits.  What they learned as they grew up aided Hillary to climb Mount Everest and Armstrong to fly to the moon.  Their war experience taught them new skills, like responding to dangerous situations quickly.  Because of their accomplishments, they both earned distinction, even as they continued to work hard and participate in new adventures.  By facing innumerable dangers and difficulties, both Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong opened new doors for mankind to pass through.  Although still dangerous, Mount Everest is no longer unconquered, and tourist mountaineers are able to climb to the top of the world, just as 34-year-old Edmund Hillary once did.  Also, the moon is no longer an isolated sphere hanging in the heavens above the reach of man.  Thanks to Armstrong’s “small step,” mankind has been able to establish stations and satellites in space and make further explorations with space probes to other planets, such as Mercury.  By persevering in mountaineering and aeronautical engineering, Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong reached heights of success and traveled higher and farther than anyone had ever gone before.

Armstrong on the Moon

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Works Cited

Baxter, Roberta. “Neil Armstrong: Learning To Fly.” Neil Armstrong. 1. n.p.: Great Neck Publishing, 2006. Biography Collection Complete. Web. 2 Oct. 2012.

Brennan, Kristine. “Sir Edmund Hillary: Modern-Day Explorer.” Sir Edmund Hillary: Modern-Day Explorer (2000): 6. Biography Collection Complete.  Web.  27 Sept. 2012.

Coburn, Broughton.  Triumph on Everest.  National Geographic Society: Washington D.C., 2000.

Dempewolff, Richard F.  “Hillary, Sir Edmund Percival.”  World Book Online InfoFinder.  World Book, 2012.  Web.  1 Oct. 2012.

Hansen, James R.  “Armstrong, Neil Alden.”  World Book Online InfoFinder.  World Book,  2012.  Web.  28 Sept. 2012.

Kramer, Barbara.  Neil Armstrong: the First Man on the Moon.  Enslow Publishers, Inc.: Springfield, NJ, 1997.

“Sir Edmund Hillary.” Great Athletes (Salem Press) (2001): 3090. Biography Collection Complete. Web.  27 Sept. 2012.