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Only the whir of the potter wheel licked the stained walls of the studio as an apron-clad artist cupped a mound of clay slip with wet hands. Next to the wheel laid scalpel-like knives, sponges of various sizes and textures, wires strung to handles, other cutters, twigs, and leaves. But the potter’s sensitive hands, sinewy and dripping wet, caught my attention: He seemed to know when to pause, slow the wheel, add more clay, etch designs upon the lip, indent patterns, and so much more. With others, I looked on, hushed by the emerging bowl taking shape on the wheel.

After the potter slip-wired the bowl from the wheel and set it aside to dry, he focused upon his students and smiled. “You can do this too. It just takes practice—That’s why I’m here.” That was years ago.

Then, as well as now, this experience mirrors Potter God’s ongoing intimacy in bringing forth new life, within limits of time and space. Like the hollow in the earthenware bowl, my body of eighty-six years has held a treasure—despite chronic disorders. Light always emerged and I did find my way, albeit with new direction and resolve.

At some future moment, Potter God will slip-wire my body from the wheel of life and set me free from my present diminishments. Until then, I wait and pray… and ask you to do the same. I’m grateful.

A well-crafted poem is a world unto itself: each word crafted upon the anvil of precision, then blasting psychic space for the inexperienced.

Such was my experience reflecting upon the poem, “We Should Be Well Prepared,” found in Mary Oliver’s collection, Red Bird (2008), fitting end-of-the-year advice for us all. It’s about endings that stay ended.

What a subject, you might ask? Only Oliver’s acute sensitivity and observation, honed since a child, taught her to voice the inexpressible, in the multi-valiance of life teeming around her. Therein, she dipped into the pool of metaphor and the ordinary became extraordinary.

So in this poem, she selected nine metaphors that brush the reality of death, inherent in all created life, and invited us to look with her: the plovers’ cry of goodbye, the stare of the dead fox, the falling of leaves and long wait for their return, the ended relationship, the effects of mold and sourness upon foods, the rushing of river water and days – “…never to return.”

The final metaphor bites hard:

         “The way somebody comes back, but only in a dream.”

Whatever shape our diminishment comes, it will come. Mary Oliver’s life-long experience reflects her commendable attitude and willingness to teach others. I’m sure she was well prepared the moment of her last breath, January 17, 2019.

Hands enhance life’s experiences: dimpled hands of a toddler mouthing everything within reach, sinewy hands of a laborer plying his trade, willowy hands of a dancer enhancing her art, knowing hands of a father responding to his children.

Other hands are set aside for matters of spirit: those of the Jesuit priest James Keegan come to mind. Decades of holding the Body and Blood of Christ during Mass, of holding others’ torments, of holding words until matured into images, of holding spiritual directors under his care, of holding his God in the face of debilitating illness that culminated in his death—all marked his scarred hands with an uncanny beauty.

Its reflection is found in These Hands (2017), the slim volume of his poems drawn from the crucible of his lifelong humble service. Nothing escaped his attention: seascapes, seasons, people, animals, death, even his Parkinson disease. His chaste spirit foraged for precise words until the sought-for image burst into consciousness, imbued with humor and compassion. Within each poem shimmers an intimacy toward something larger than life. He, too, played with words during his final days, sourced by his Creator. Such fired his imagination and now surprises his readers with “Ah!” The book’s cover suggests this response.

Keegan’s concluding poem, And Give Our Best to Uncle, contains such a moment: “Before my teeth fall out/ and more joints start to click/ like a metronome collecting silence,/ I want to say, ‘I love you,’ once/ and have it understood/ the way the mirror/ understands my face.”

 Such a relationship he had with his God…

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