How could I have been so busy that I didn’t have time for the sky?
The setting I seek, to drift, and ponder each and every why.
How could I have been so busy that I didn’t have time for the sky?
The setting I seek, to drift, and ponder each and every why.
I walked in the woods. It was cold. The chill on my face was cold enough for me to notice. I thought that maybe it was cold enough to freeze condensation into my moustache. The snow was hard. It was frozen, molded by the beings that had trodden there before me. My steps were my own, but nearly every one of them landed where another had trod this space recently. My own passage through this place was loud and I wondered who, or what else, knew I was there. I assumed that all animals were keenly aware of my presence. When I stopped to tickle the depths of my throat with the crisp, clean, cold air, I heard nothing else. Save, the fluttering beech nut leaves that clung in the slight winter’s breeze to the twig that gave them life. Now and again I heard the pop of some piece of tree bark that finally succumbed to the temperatures. But for man, I heard nothing. I listened to my heartbeat as my eyes and ears sought out other sounds deep in the forest. The trickle of distant water half covered in ice seemed so loud even when it was still far enough away that I could not see it. The steps I took were in earnest as I couldn’t wait to get to a place where the path ran away to disappear somewhere around the next bend. Finally, after checking a spot along a trail that I had not explored before, I noticed that the foot prints in the snow ended, reversing themselves along the trail as they had entered.
Ahhh, I looked around and made no haste in determining my new direction. As a matter of fact, I even removed my heavy outer layer of clothing as I had created too much heat on my walk into the woods. I stripped down to my bare back in order to cool down and make sure all layers of my clothing were dry. I was worried that if my shirts were wet, and my pace slowed in the shadows of hills and forest, that I might quickly get too cold. It was only 14°F with a wind chill in the single digits back in the forest. I re-layered, and I wore the heaviest layer like a belt around my waist, because I knew if I was moving, I would be warm enough. I did not want to cut my time short, for there aren’t enough hours available to fully enjoy this landscape already.
Then I decided it would be the tiny deer tracks that I saw, tracks that made the faintest of impressions on the snow dust, like a thin layer of powdered sugar covering the crusted snow, was where I would follow. I walked in the woods. I walked on crusted snow. There were no other foot steps. There was no trail. I followed some animal tracks, but mostly just the lay of the land. The crusted snow was slick in spots but I thought of how much more difficult this walk would be in the summer months of growth. I knelt by a small stream to listen while my eyes searched for each instrument that played such a rhythmic trickle. I looked through the crystal clear sheet of ice and watched the water flow over the bed of the stream. I followed the land and its ease of passage feeling for the contours I would seek if looking at a map of the terrain. I came upon a large wetland that was fed by several small streams, a couple of which I had encountered during my walk. I skirted around the wetland checking the tracks in the snow and noticing the age of the massive fir trees around me. I noticed almost no hard wood trees and figured that the land had been cleared generations before me. Then as the ground rose, away from the water, I noticed a super highway of animal tracks. There were deer, muskrat, turkey, bobcat, coyote, otter, and another bird tracks that I wasn’t sure of. There was probably even more tracks that I missed. But during my time there, only the water, the wind, and I were moving. I stood in silence and let the sun warm my face, as I daydreamed of being there in that spot on some early, early morning to see all the activity connected to the tracks I saw.
I listened to the sounds, the silence found in the absence of sound. I talked with my Lord aloud. I figured the nature around me was already familiar with The Lord Almighty, and that it would be just fine to speak aloud. I prayed aloud. I prayed in reverence. I prayed a thankful prayer. I prayed for the vision and attentiveness to notice the awesomeness of the Lord’s works in so many people, places, and things that I encounter every day. I prayed for my Dad, for my whole family, and for many more. I prayed for our leaders to boldly go where true leaders must go. I prayed for God’s direction for them, for me, for my family, for us all. I prayed about a lot of things. I talked openly with God. Finally I prayed for more opportunities to be in such wild and natural places as often as His will would allow. For me, there’s a calming, encompassing, peace and a connection to God that is unmistakable when truly engaged in the forest. For all of life that whisks by us in a blur that seems to be an endless loop at times, I was so grateful for these couple of hours in nature. I knew I had other commitments that I needed to attend to, so I made my way out of the forest, reluctantly returning to reality. As I left the woods and was returning to the places I needed to be, I saw a large, beautiful, wandering coyote going about his or her day. I smiled and I thought, perfect, I am leaving, let the animals return to their business.
I find myself staring into the beautiful spaces that God created and letting my mind wander over the hills, through the valleys, and along the streams. In my mind all of it is wild, all of it is untouched, and all of it is revered by mankind. From the path my mind wanders along, I see the people who now walk the streets of gold, the ones we loved here on earth. I long to sit and visit with them again. I long to hear the familiar laughter that each of them often contributed to our family gatherings. I ache to look into the eyes of those heroes who have gone before me. In those eyes, there are windows to all-time, the windows dressed in love are unmistakable. The eyes invite you in to sit and stay for awhile, they exude love, and portray a confidence that all will be just fine, for where we are gathered, He is there also. Try looking into the eyes of a loved one, maybe an older one, but one who has assured their eternal salvation by giving their life to Christ, and tell me you don’t see all I have described here, and more.
I wrote this piece two years ago, and this morning, I honor my aunt’s life by posting the original words I wrote.
Have you ever found yourself looking around in the darkness of your somehow closed mind, and wondered how in the world you arrived at this place? If you were to trace your steps, reflecting on every detail that you pondered in the making of choices you made, did you find that first wrong turn? No? Then you’re not being completely honest with yourself. Own up; look in the mirror; search your soul, and tell yourself the truth, even if it hurts. Do not justify the unjustifiable (“not able to be shown to be right or reasonable”). Wrong is wrong, deal with it. Take your time, as nothing in the rest of your life might be so important as it is to get this right. Seriously.
…How I ever held myself together through this time was a feat in itself. And I know it was God that pushed me, it was God that helped me keep it together, for it was God’s truths I was at war with. My character, my upbringing, the things I knew in my gut were right, the countless places I could have corrected my direction, these were the things I fought during this time. As if I were lost in the deepest, darkest forest while knowing a couple of difficult, pride relinquishing steps were all it would take to get back on track, and instead I talk myself into believing this isn’t so bad. I mean how lost can one get anyways? You have to get pretty lost to lose God. Thankfully the little voice in my conscience that represented God never went completely away. I tried to silence the voice over years of time, but fortunately God’s plan was more powerful than anything I could muster…
Pray pastor, please continue to pray, so I don’t have to raise my head or open my eyes. I wish not to wipe my eyes, nor do I care to address the shortness of breath accompanied with the quiet sobs rippling through me. For all the pain and suffering that surrounds me, I am okay here, safely seeking refuge in this old, friendly church. If this moment could just last forever, maybe I could return to my youth, playing out on the farm on a warm summer day. I could again, smell the sweet air that was found out there. Inside, my grandmother would be rolling out the materials to create those most wonderful home-made donuts, with our visit in mind. Down the old dirt road, my uncles would once again come. They were larger than life to me, so strong, so smart, so unafraid, and such Godly men who were an example to us all, maybe even more than they knew. My aunts would gather and nourishment was prepared in every shape and form. Hymns being sung could be heard waltzing through the air. Grampy would have kick started my day with the sweet aroma of bacon cooked on a wood stove, and probably shared a couple of tricks to resourceful farm living if I had been paying enough attention to him going about his day. Time would be moving just slowly enough to make sure that I would not lose these memories, nor would I forget the lessons learned among the greatest people I have ever known. Pray longer pastor, for here it’s safe and nothing hurts. Here there is love, all around me, and from above. In this row I sit with the nearest and the dearest from now and from times before me too. On all sides there is hope, there is admiration, and there is selflessness. I am praying with you pastor. Can we just pray a little more? I need prayer, we all do, and I sit here, head bowed, eyes closed, in reverence I pray too. Amen.
I was so happy to get home late last night. Mom and I made amazing time returning from an emotional afternoon spent in Woodstock, NB. We are so thankful for the opportunity we had to get up to Canada and celebrate Marjorie’s life with everyone, even if only for the afternoon. I rolled into my yard at around 11:30pm last night, after a 770 mile round-trip that had started some 18 hours prior. For my own personal reference, our family trip to the Outer Banks this summer to celebrate Mom and Dad’s 50th Anniversary was only a 714 mile ride to get there. Anyways, I move on.
I am far more exhausted this morning than I thought I would be, honestly. The drives are tiring, but the emotions and thoughts that overcome me on days like yesterday take more of a toll on me I think. Certainly, the combination is powerful, and I am feeling it today for sure. That said, I would do it again today if I had to.
Honestly, since I wrote the poem and tribute to Marjorie on Friday night, I think I have actually experienced more memories, more thoughts, certainly more emotions, and at least a few dozen moments wishing I could concisely share what rambles through my mind.
I will start here. To the family and friends who cared for, saw things through, planned and executed the last few days’ events, and who lingered until all got their fill, thank you. Thank you so very much. You’re all awesome and our dear Marjorie would have been proud I am sure, smiling somewhere just outside of the limelight, at all of you, the ones she loved so very much.
I pulled into a parking spot, assessing my own ability to park symmetrically between the painted lines, upon my exit of the vehicle. Truthfully, I could have squared the vehicle up a bit better, maybe giving myself a grade of a B- for the parking job, but I was tired, and too focused on getting across the street and into the awaiting funeral home to do anything about it then. That thought only stayed with me for a few steps thankfully.
Mom and I crossed the street and found seats, oddly enough next to relatives (pretty good chance that happens at any gathering where Peterson’s are present), once we entered the funeral home. I sat there, silent for the most part, looking around the room. I counted seats on both sides of the aisle, 9 on one side, 8 on the other. There were 8 full rows of 17 seats and then some more seats behind, a small standing room area, and then more seats off to the side. I saw people I knew, people I thought I knew, others I figured I should have known, and then others I knew that I didn’t know.
I glanced forward from my seat six rows deep. The distance was perfect I thought because being any closer to the open casket might have been more than I could of handled. I don’t really have a problem with seeing my loved ones in that state, but this time I had decided that the pictures I had in my mind from my numerous visits with Marjorie last year and this year were far more authentic Marjorie than anything I knew I would see again here on earth. I could see her from where I sat and I allowed my eyes to wander her way numerous times as a human being would be prone to do. Eventually the casket was closed and I wasn’t upset about that either. Before it closed though, I had told myself to focus my glances to the area around, and including, Marjorie’s lips for one very good reason, in my mind anyways. I had observed in recent years that Marjorie could say a lot in just the positioning of her lips. Happy. Content. Stern. Commanding respect. Pleased. These are just a few words that I felt she could portray without saying a word.
I noticed that the crowd was large, maybe 150 people or so. Many of these folks grew up with Marjorie, literally within a couple of miles of the old farm. Many, of course, were from the massive Peterson family, who mostly started their lives within a few miles of each other too. There were others too, people who Marjorie met and became dear friends with along her way through life. Maybe you’re impressed with crowds or numbers, and maybe you’re not. But I would be willing to bet that the numbers I would find most impressive would be something along the lines of the number one, and then words numbering a few. I’ll explain. The number one would be the answer to the question of Who or How many were at the center of Marjorie’s life. The One, God. That was clear and everyone knew it. Beautiful. Numbering in maybe a few would be the number of different words used to describe Marjorie if each of the 150 or so people present yesterday were asked to describe what she represented to them personally. I say “numbering a few” because Marjorie was Marjorie, to you, to me, to the old, to the young, to all. I found that she was consistent, she was constant, she was a Christian, and she was conscious. No matter how you would assess her, she was those things, over and over. She was Marjorie.
The service continued. The stories were shared. I thought to myself how privileged I had been. Privileged because almost every single story told, I had heard before. Not because I need to know it all, and clearly you must have figured by now, that I don’t know much. But because I had either heard the stories from Marjorie directly or in her presence, which of course offered her a chance to refute or to expand on any shared story. See; I was the fortunate one. As the stories unfolded, and the message was shared through words and song, my mind wandered, but never left the room. I thought more on Marjorie, her life, the impact she had and the legacy she left. Then I heard something I hadn’t fully expected to hear.
“There was a cousin…There was someone…Stephen Beal. Is Stephen Beal here…Can you raise your hand or stand up if you’re here…” Ummm, yes, I think that would be me, my mind answered. My hand went up. And from the podium I was asked if I wanted to read a poem I had written. Rising from my seat, I responded, “I’ll give it a shot.” Honestly I was hoping my legs would actually lift me and carry me to the podium at the front of the room. They did. Thankfully.
In total honestly, the next, I have no idea how many minutes I was up there, were and are a total blur to me. In my mind I picture a tornado spinning quickly, randomly, spilling forth a few words here and there, none of which make sense together. That’s how I remember my moments at the front of the room until I started reading the poem. The poem, which was really some rearranging and rewriting of the words of an old Ray Charles/Willie Nelson song, that for some unknown reason I had connected to the state of Marjorie as I pictured it in the moments before she was called home. This summer I had visited with her in July and she was so calm as it related to her end of days. Somewhere in my mind’s eye, while listening to the original song and lyrics, a picture started to develop in my imagination and the words followed. Ultimately it became a simple revision to the words of the song, a poem if you will. The poem, I renamed simply, Seven Irish Angels. I read the first verse and I think it went alright. Then I heard what I thought was someone in one of the front rows, let out a sob, then another. I paused. The pastor (sitting behind me) prayed a one line prayer for me, I heard it, and it helped me get over the lump in my throat and I finished the little poem. I think I said something mildly coherent upon finishing the poem and I returned to my seat. I was happy that nobody escorted me from the building as I felt my performance was probably worthy of sitting out in the parking lot until the grown ups were all done.
I poke fun at myself and try to stay grounded completely. I try not to pretend to be something I am not. With complete sincerity, I am deeply honored and genuinely thankful that I was called upon yesterday, and it will be a memory, blurry or not, that I will hold dear for the rest of my life. Thank you all for the opportunity to be included in the celebration and remembrance of our dear Marjorie.
Marjorie’s daughter-in-law Sherry, whom I had never met before yesterday, called me at home on Saturday and asked me if I was coming up to the funeral, and if I wouldn’t mind sharing something from the things I had written during the service. I told her I honestly might not get through it because I do get emotional pretty easily about things near and dear to my heart. But I wasn’t opposed to it either. I never did hear what the final plan was until I was sitting in the service and my name was called. Which, honestly, was completely perfect.
Before I went up front to fumble around with the seemingly millions of thoughts running through my mind, none of which included reading the poem, and sometime since Saturday’s phone call, I had been thinking about being in the presence of Marjorie. I had shared the news of Marjorie’s passing with another friend of mine while at my son’s hockey game on Saturday evening. I described to her how I felt to sit down, alone, and just to talk with Marjorie. And had I the time, and control over my mind at the front of the room, I would have shared something like this.
We all have our place. Our place where we can melt into the backdrop just a little bit, and just be. A place where time doesn’t seem to be measured and, if it is being measured, we really don’t care. A place where sound is optional. Silence is golden but so is any other sound in this special place that we allow to reach our ears, or our conscious minds. A place where upon arrival little effort is needed to just be there and take in the things we find so special about the place. One such place for me is alongside a cold, gentle flowing, quietly babbling, forest stream. Seeking out the hollow of an old stream-side tree, or the comfort found on a moss covered log or stump where I can rest my weary bones, ease my saturated mind, and listen to the things I feel like letting in, all of which come directly from the creatures and landscapes that God Himself created. So, as I mentally cozy up to this little stream, this place where I can just be; I think also of time with Marjorie. Sitting with Marjorie, to me, was a similar experience. There was peace. There was calm. There was no agenda or preconceived anything. In her peace, behind her smile which shone through her eyes, you knew there was something bigger, something better, that she fully knew, understood, and trusted. She was at peace with God. And so, there was just time spent with her. I don’t think it would have mattered whether words were spoken or not, I think being around someone so unassuming, so completely at peace, and so at ease being in her own skin, was a refreshing trip all in its own.
Back to the service…back in my seat…back in my mind…I was sure I had butchered the entire time I spent up front. Trying to focus, gather myself, and listen to my three cousins sing Because He Lives, I realized that I had quoted lyrics from this same song in the tribute I had written three nights before. Wow! That’s pretty awesome I thought.
Quickly, or so it seemed, the service came to a close and it was time for the immediate family to proceed to the cemetery for the burial. The rest of us would cross the street and await at the family reception set up in the church cafeteria/gymnasium of sorts.
The reception, I was anxious to attend. This was the time and place to meet those I had not yet met and to visit with the many dear family members, among others, from the generation I so revere. What came next was more than I could have imagined and was more proof to me just how feeble my mind is and how singular my thoughts can be. I thank God because the picture He sees is so much bigger than the picture I see and I am so glad to have the relationship with Him that I do. He is great. I am nothing without Him. As it should be.
I picked a seat in the corner and although I had already driven more than 370 miles and sat through a funeral service to get to this seat, I just wanted to sit. Well sort of. I also wanted to visit with family. I wanted to stand and give loving, supportive hugs to those so many around me that I love so much. I wanted also to stand and talk with people while visiting, but for the immediate future, I just wanted to sit. So I did.
Family filtered into the big room. And I don’t think the background matters no matter where we might be or for what reason, when I see those familiar faces present, the place is more secure, it’s safer, it’s better, it’s more friendly, and more importantly, God is among us. Mostly they migrated toward the corner of the room that Mom and I, and a few others were already in. I stood, I gave hugs. I visited. I laughed, we laughed. I received a lot of attention; attention I was not expecting, nor was I looking for it. I was pleased and relieved to receive positive feedback regarding my time up front. I shared with my Aunt, as I had earlier in the day with my Mom, that I felt we were in the right place by deciding to make the trip to attend. I explained my justification by saying that when I am 80 years old I would not like to look back at the last 48 hours and wonder how it was possible that I could not have been there. Then Marjorie’s immediate family returned from the cemetery to join us all.
More people than I can remember meeting, introduced themselves and offered positive words about my time up front, about the choice of song to rearrange words too, and also to share the emotions upon reading what I had written as well as their own connections to Marjorie. I was overwhelmed. I was humbled. I was deeply honored. I was talking to one person after another. Did I mention how humbling this was? Wow. Overwhelming to say the least. In my mind, I was just another among many who was fortunate enough to know Marjorie.
I just wanted to be big and strong enough to hold up anyone and everyone in the immediate family who had pretty much been at Marjorie’s side day and night for hours, and days at a time as her time drew near. I wanted to be the assurance that everything was going to be okay and to redirect the suffering and pain toward the glory Marjorie now understood fully. I wanted to hug and to hold the sisters until their weary, saddened faces were alive and bright again with loving smiles. I wanted to be the man in person, not just behind a tribute or a poem, to her boys and their spouses of whom Marjorie spoke so often and spoke so highly of. I wanted to be the message anyone needed to hear, or to be the living example of how I felt about dear Marjorie. I had asked God for strength, for peace, and for direction in all of these matters. He delivered.
I write because I have found that after many years on this earth that I actually enjoy it. Nobody from my school days would ever believe it to be true, but it is quite true. In these situations I write also to feel. Yes, I cry. I cry a lot when I write on these matters, these tributes, these memories, but I figure if I can’t cry by immersing myself wholly into these scenarios where others flee for the fear of feeling pain or due to the real uncertainty of where their loved one may have ended up, then when am I supposed to feel, to cry? I jump in and let the feeling, the pain, the joy, the whatever it is just wash over me and allow each second upon second to fully develop revealing ultimately, peace with the situation. I also talk to God a lot in these moments. A lot. It’s how I deal with it. I truthfully hope that my sharing then is a help to others in some way, shape, or form.
My parents don’t know this fully, I don’t think, but there’s some history here for me. When I was a boy I would often times sit at the desk in my room and write out simple sermons that my Dad might be able to use from the pulpit. I think I only gave him one actual sermon in writing of which I am sure he didn’t use, but he thought it was good. I wrote out others, and wrote still more thoughts and ideas that never formulated into anything of structure. My Dad, my Uncle, and my Grandfather were all preachers, among others. Honestly I can say that as my father’s oldest son, I never did want to be a preacher. Nor, did I ever become one. But I did pray often, throughout my whole life and even into the present, for the opportunity to be the message or share a message, or to somehow possess the tools in order to do either. Now, as I alluded to before, I am not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, and I don’t always see the forest through the trees, and I am certain I have missed signs, ignored them, or misread them, or all of the above over the years. Writing though seems to be a medium by which I have been able to reach people and share a message, a mindset, a belief, a faith, or even a way of looking differently at things that perhaps should have been noticed all along. I can’t say for sure really, but I share my perspective honestly.
So, there I was in the corner of a big room, in a church in which I had never been in before. There were many, many people around me that I knew well, many I knew of, and many I didn’t know at all. The outpouring of thanks, and recognition of similar perspectives, among heart-felt feelings for our dear Marjorie followed me all around the room. I am still overwhelmed and humbled by all of the greetings, kind words, well wishes, warm thoughts, hugs, tears, outpouring of emotions regarding this person we all loved so much, and on it goes. I told many of you that there were more thoughts I might share. I just needed to try to arrange this load some. Hopefully, among these more than 3500 words I have shared here, there is some resemblance of organized thought here with what you are reading.
Finally, this isn’t about me. This about our dear Marjorie and even more important than that, it’s about her faith. Because to know Marjorie and not know her faith was to have never met Marjorie at all. These last few months, or even years, Marjorie showed us, even if we were barely paying attention what a presence God had in her life. No one in their sane mind having gone through what she went through over the last few years could sit across the table from me and talk in complete peace, with laser focus, unwavering courage, and the gentle smiling eyes of a farmer about their own mortality without the knowledge of an eternal Saviour and the faith in our Lord. That is what this is about. Marjorie was just one of the Lord’s vessels from which we could each drink. I am a better person for having spent time with her. I am thankful for her life and I cannot wait to see her again some day. Our dear Marjorie.
Somewhere around the world today there was another selfless soul born, of that I am pretty sure. And even with all the newborns today, there’ll never another Marjorie be.
I ended the phone call with …”my thoughts and prayers are with all of you.” As I promised I would, I dialed the number to my parents house and waited for Mom to answer. Usually, it’s been her making those dreaded calls to me, but tonight I had a message to pass on and an inkling that she already knew what I had just confirmed. She answered the phone and both of us seemed a bit scared to say the first words, knowing why each of us was on the line. I passed on the message I had promised to share and we talked about what we feared to be the case. Our dear, sweet Marjorie had passed, no more than an hour before.