The Likeness of Unseen Things: A Lesson from the Woolly Bear

Photo by Photo by Derek Hil from FreeImages

Sky brought a caterpillar to class. Shortly before my seventh period British Literature course began, Sky introduced me to her caterpillar (Fred, I believe she named him), a token from her lunch outside in the park. Rather than send her back outdoors to return the woolly bear to its rightful domain, I allowed her to keep it on her desk. I’m not sure why I permitted a junior this odd privilege; it wasn’t even a request, per se. But stay, it did.

Something about the caterpillar intrigued me, so at the end of the period, I began to do some research. I had already planned a new series of poems inspired by the characteristics of love from I Corinthians 13:4-8a, allowing natural imagery to convey the traits Paul referenced: patience, kindness, contentment, etc. Perhaps this caterpillar had something to say about patience?

I would say I am generally a patient person, but recently, I have struggled to show patient love, usually as a result of my own selfish desires. For me, this study in woolly bear folklore was more than a lesson in showing love through patience or an exploration of the connection between woolly bears and the severity of the upcoming winter. It was the antidote to the hopelessness that had begun to seep in as I got distracted by the world around me.

I don’t believe any of us are called to seek shelter in some secluded nook by ourselves to just weather out the storm. Rather, I believe it’s time to leave the things we’ve fed on for so long and seek shelter in the secret place of the Most High so that we can rise again, transformed and then, as a result, transform the world around us.

The Likeness of Unseen Things

Vincent H. Anastasi - 2021

Methodically, the woolly bear
bunches and unfurls -
silent accordian - inching its way
across the forest floor,
hearkening to winter's distant voice.
Instinct drives it on,
some natural inclination to live,
immutable and divine,
to exchange the plantain,
dandelion and nettles
for some dark sheltered nook
to weather winter's blast:
autumn's bristled prophet,
black bands bookending burnished red,
its body an almanac,
a crawling compass needle
forecasting frigid days ahead.

Furry sage, you exchange
skin for skin,
six times molted,
deepening red and fading black,
until winter takes root
and, hibernating, you freeze
bit by bit
surviving in suspended animation
'til awakened by Spring's warming breath,
you rise, feed, and freeze again,
until the transforming mortal thaw
releases flaming wings
to flit about on summer nights.

Now, the tulip trees come alive,
leaves like tiger moths descending,
and the whole earth beds down
awaiting the vernal voice
that calls forth each cocooned Lazarus
out of earthen tombs,
shuffling off this mortal coil
to rejoice in the likeness of unseen things.

All I Need to Get Up to Teach Tomorrow

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I never expected to find this card in my mailbox last Wednesday. One of my colleagues had students write notes to teachers in the high school in honor of World Teachers’ Day. To be honest, I had no idea there was a World Teachers’ Day. I’m familiar with teacher appreciation week, but this was unexpected. The note, more than the day.

While McDonald’s hands out free breakfasts to teachers this week, I’m still digesting this profoundly simple epistle, imperfections and all. Nothing speaks louder to the state of the union for students across America (and the world) for the past eighteen months, imperfections and all.

To put it simply, it sucks.

As I look out on the masked faces of the students I teach, their expressions choked out by masks and months of psychological trauma, I grieve. The manic fear spread throughout our society has imprisoned so many souls in cells of despair. And I’m done playing the game.

“this year suck but you don’t, keep it up”

Anonymous Student

As I told my students the day after receiving the card, “This is all I need to remind me why I’m here and why what I bring to the classroom is so vital.” It’s not about the literary terms or even the stories and poems we read, for the most part. I can’t afford to have a bad day, though I struggle with living in these unprecedented dark days just like they do. But I know I can’t do it on my own strength. Unless I tap into the streams of living water from which flow goodness and peace and joy, I have nothing to offer but the same hopeless and drowning despair. And that’s not why I became a teacher, nor why I write.

I have no poetry to offer today. Only this card.

Hear the voice of the poet.

Nature’s Invitation to Pause

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Autumn has burst on the scene with its varied invitations to deepen. In the midst of the full swing of a challenging school year, my son’s busy soccer schedule, and the general maintenance of cars, toilets, and lawns, I’ve still managed to stop to ponder the nuthatches feeding in the neighbor’s pine trees by the creek or to gaze into the ever-changing wonder of a campfire on a cool fall evening. These pause-worthy-moments present themselves regularly, yet the currents of life ever threaten to pull me down the river, far away from the things I value most.

For example, last year, we intentionally carved out time to celebrate The Feast of Tabernacles, eating most of our evening meals together in the backyard housed in our outdoor Clam shelter by the campfire. Somehow, we’ve only managed to get out twice this year. Even my birthday had to yield to the basic need to food shop at Costco and Fresh Thyme, albeit with my wife and two youngest sons, and a free brownie at Chick-fil-A due to multiple order mishaps. Sleep has become a precious commodity interrupted by seasonal colds and high blood pressure.

So when my daughter shared the following poem with me, first for my feedback and then as one of my birthday gifts, I knew I was being wooed into wonder, and I knew what I would be posting next on thedeepeningground. Ethney harnesses the power of the Shakespearean sonnet with some subtle surprises. For example, the second line of each quatrain boasts an extra syllable, which also just so happens to be the case with the final rhymed couplet. What might she be saying about the groove of life? Tonight, I invite you to hear the call of nature, inviting you to pause and then, perhaps, march to the beat of a different drummer.

Nature’s Invitation – Ethney R. I. Anastasi

As sure as the sea's tide doth shift and move,
So do the seasons ever alter and change.
In fall we once again enter work's groove,
A groove so familiar and yet so strange.
From one thing to another we hurry,
And never, it seems, to stop and, look around.
Rarely do we listen to nature's plea,
Instead we hasten to a different sound.
Nature's artist creates a scene sublime
Through whispering winds and vibrant changing leaves
That we may hear and see it anytime
And gaze upon the masterpiece it weaves.
       Throughout the seasons we are busy and rush
       Yet all of nature is calling us to hush.

A Midsummer Afternoon’s Dream

Photo by Vincent H. Anastasi – Wolf Creek from My Backyard

When I began crafting this poem, I fully intended to mimic the style of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales: “When that August with his beastly heat…” However, I found the set meter and rhyme too restricting for the random wanderings of a father and his young sons up and down the stream that flows along our backyard. If form fits function, the regular rhythm of Chaucer fails to capture the frolicking freedom of our hours in Wolf Creek.

Nor do I mean to suggest with the title that what I experienced that Sunday afternoon in August was all but a dream, and that I had “but slumbered here / While these visions did appear” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene 1, Lines 416-417). Rather, in this case, the word “dream” should link with the word “idyll” in the poem. This pastoral scene that I capture in these few lines of poetry is the ideal afternoon for me (except it lacks a nap). As we have fought for Sabbath in our lives, working to make a hard stop on the week more intentional, it’s encounters like this that fuel my desire to keep fighting for rest.

Here on this first day of autumn, let me take you back to the midpoint of summer when the heat can be oppressive and the sound of the cicadas deafening. Although autumn is my favorite season of the year – think of the changing leaves, the apples, the pumpkin pie – the allurements of summer remind me to savor every moment I’m given and every season of life. That’s why, before heading off to my high school open house tonight, I went out back in my dress clothes to play soccer with my three youngest sons. “The kingfisher rushes downstream” – always. Don’t miss it!

A Midsummer Afternoon’s Dream

Vincent H. Anastasi - 2021

When summer solstice's half-life's spent
and the cicadian rhythm
of an idyll August afternoon
lures one to rest,
I settle, momentarily
on the lawn, halfway
between the house and Wolf Creek,
a matter of intrigue for bees and ants
whose delicate feet I cannot feel
exploring these hills and fields of flesh.

More insistent than summer's sultry voice,
my sons sing me into the stream
where, shod in water-shoes,
we plumb the shallow depths,
unsettling crayfish who brush
our ankles in protest
as they jettison past.
Hours wash away as we seek
to resurrect the past
from the creek bed's silty grave,
our open treasure chest.

We are Naomi Shihab Nye's trashpickers,
kneeling to the nearly intact China saucers,
rejoicing in the discovery
of each milk glass canning lid
and the blue glass telegraph insulator
that "finds its first kingdom"
in our unfinished kitchen.
We gather the broken pieces
of glass in a bucket
and toss the sunken branches
over the downed tree on the opposite bank
before hauling our prized soda bottles
up the stone steps to our backyard.

I pause to listen to water laughing
through our dams' imperfect rock walls
and watch the current carrying
away a few premature fallen leaves
as my Sunday settles into sunset
and a kingfisher rushes downstream.

Remembering & Grappling with Loss

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We found out this afternoon that our beloved neighbor passed away. On a day when we Americans remember the lives lost as a result of what took place on 9/11/01, the sudden loss of our neighbor reminded me of the fragility of life and the need to savor every interaction I have with those I love. My wife and children had spoken to Dick just a few days ago; I, sadly, didn’t have a chance to speak to him recently. That’s what I grieve the most: the not being able to have that last conversation, being able to tell him how much I appreciated having him as a neighbor, like the grandfather next door.

For us, it is a loss. For Dick, it is all gain: a reunion with his wife and his first face-to-face with Jesus. We grieve; he rejoices. Life for us goes on in this temporal state; Dick has just begun to taste eternity.

The house next door is deserted tonight. This reminded me of a wonderful poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, my favorite British author, who also penned In Memoriam A. H. H., in which these beautiful words are found: “Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.” This is where we rest today: grateful that we have loved, and saddened by our loss – a fresh reminder to live each day more deliberately.

The Deserted House – Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Life and Thought have gone away
Side by side,
Leaving door and windows wide.
Careless tenants they!

All within is dark as night:
In the windows is no light;
And no murmur at the door,
So frequent on its hinge before.

Close the door; the shutters close;
Or through the windows we shall see
The nakedness and vacancy
Of the dark deserted house.

Come away: no more of mirth
Is here or merry-making sound.
The house was builded of the earth,
And shall fall again to ground.

Come away: for Life and Thought
Here no longer dwell;
But in a city glorious -
A great and distant city - have bought
A mansion incorruptible.
Would they could have stayed with us!

A Different Kind of Conscientious Objector

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I do not want to detract from the following poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay through my own lengthy introduction. Only let me say, if you are unfamiliar with her work and worldview, I suggest you do a little research. You might start here.

Let me clarify that I am NOT speaking of a military objection. I support our military and come from a military family. The forced conscription of people like myself to war against the minds, beliefs, and freedoms of others is what I protest.

I had never read this poem before today. The timing was apropos. If you’re struggling to stand for something you believe in, if you are being pushed to go against your own conscience, if you’re tired of being silent, perhaps Millay’s words can speak for you.

Conscientious Objector – Edna St. Vincent Millay

I shall die, but
that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he clinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man's door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.

Puppet or Kite?

Last Sunday, I started mulling over the phrase “marionette me.” I’ve always been impressed by the master marionettests who can bring puppets to life through the subtle, intentional movement of strings, operating unseen. I guess I’ve always appreciated puppets. I was raised on Sesame Street and, more importantly, The Muppet Show. I used to love watching the shadow puppet skits in Bear in the Big Blue House with my children. Even now, every time we go to a toy store, I end up spending some time playing with the puppets, and my children have put on puppet shows for our enjoyment after dinner.

Yet when I think of my own life, being a puppet in the hands of someone else, then the rebel in me rises up, especially if the one pulling the strings does not have my best intentions at heart. It’s why I am always turned off by the Greek and Roman gods. As an English teacher, those mythological stories remind me of the worst possible relationship between the divine and mortals. I don’t want to be a puppet on their strings. Nor do I want to be the puppet of a government or the wealthy elite. But I also find solace in knowing that there is SOMEONE in control, that nothing happens on accident, and there’s a method to the seeming madness.

As a follower of Christ, then, what does that look like? I clearly cannot begin to unpack that seeming paradox of the gift of freewill and the ultimate sovereignty of God in three paragraphs, let alone a poem, but what follows is my own reflection on what that looks like for my life in the hands of a loving God. It’s a prayer of willing submission and an invitation that ends with superfluous joy.

Tethered Joy

Vincent H. Anastasi - 2021

O, Great Marionettest unseen,
marionette me,
each appendage crucifixed
to your loving hands,
yet unlike the skilled puppeteer,
dance me not on earth's immuring stage
before fickle masses
merely to entertain.

Rather, bridle me to your flying line
and slowly let me out
that I, kite-like, might soar
suspended between earth and heaven,
resting content upon the currents
that bear me up aloft on Spirit-winds,
unashamed of who I am,
unencumbered by life's demands,
not detached and distant,
aloof and alone,
but ever rising above,
ever clear in vision,
ever yoked to hands
that animate this majestic dust.

Yes, let that be what they see:
not a puppet life,
a hollow shell or mannequin,
but the hovering kite's graceful flight,
hanging almost motionless in air
with imperceptible motion.
Awe them, eyes heavenward,
tracing the swooping, gliding arcs,
the avian lightning,
rolling upside down,
then striking apexes of air
until these wings sing superfluous joy!

At the End of Summer…An Invitation to LIVE!

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And so it comes to a close… Another summer wraps up within the next ten hours for me. Tomorrow morning, I will rise in the dark of a new day, put on my dress clothes, perhaps even don a tie, and head back to the high school where I have served as an English teacher for the past two decades. I still love what I do, but the end of summer carries with it a wistful looking back at all the focused time I spent with my family, and a regretful look at all that I could (or should) have done.

The past few days, I’ve done all that I can to suck the marrow out of these waning summer opportunities. I’ve spent hours in Wolf Creek with my youngest sons searching for treasures (I’m working on a poem about that), I’ve put in my fair share of time on the local disc golf courses even with the threat of storms, I’ve played games after dinner with my family, and I’ve managed to eat a little ice cream. I even drove around town with the sound of The Beach Boys blasting from my Ford E-350’s CD player (yes, I still use CDs, and, yes, I have a twelve-passenger van; I have six children).

At this pivot point of the year for me, when all my daily routines slowly churn back to life, I found this poem by Mary Oliver heartening, especially those final lines. It’s the question I must ask myself regularly, and what I pose to you today.

The Summer Day – Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean -
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down - who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems. Beacon Press, 1992.

Made for Life: Fleeing the Waiting Room of the Soul

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I admit that I don’t handle myself nor others well when I’m frustrated, tired, or just haven’t taken some time to feed my soul. I feel guilty, honestly, when I take the time to sit down and write poetry, let alone create these posts, when I have six children, a wife, a job, and many other responsibilities rightfully clamoring for my attention. I can’t afford to take time to just write poetry or be creative. I hardly touch my guitar more than once a week. But those seeming fringe benefits of life can be easily set aside. I can’t set aside paying bills, preparing for work, or spending time with my wife and children.

You’ve heard this all before, of course. This is my regular struggle, as sure as the four seasons, and perhaps you too fight with such thoughts or know someone who feels the same way. Foolishly, I have hoped to “get all the work done” so I can then rest and be creative. We all know that life doesn’t work that way. Rarely do I ever get “all” the work done, and when I do, I’m too exhausted to write. It’s almost as if I feel I have to earn my creative quiet times, but the cost is exorbitant.

And so I end up in “the waiting room of the soul.” Deep within, I know that I cannot keep my soul on life support. That’s not living, and I can’t offer life to others if I’m barely alive. Forgive my broken record ramblings. I write this more for myself, my soul desperately seeking to be heard: “You were made for LIFE!” Listen to that still small voice, Vincent. LISTEN!

Waiting Room

Vincent H. Anastasi - 2017, 2021

This is the waiting room of the soul.
So many patients clamoring for attention:

Responsibility can’t kick the nagging cough
he picked up years ago.
He looks quite ill; he’s seen to first.

Financial Obligations refuses to wait quietly,
pacing the room incessantly
reminding the receptionist of his presence,
his gangrene hardly kept at bay.

O, great sea of men in hats!

No two names the same.

Faith reassures the others,
never pushy, always patient, always present,
offering to bear the burdens
of the ailing multitude,
her quiet voice drowned
in a sea of distractions.

Exhaustion can hardly catch his breath,
stumbling about the room, wheezing
‘til he drops in a chair and nods off to sleep.

Creativity has been rushed to the ICU.

Hope tenaciously remains.

Someone is weeping.
I cannot make out the face
while my vision blurs
and my chest constricts
in this waiting room
of the abeyant soul.

Meditations: Vespers

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The boys upstairs await my final call of “Lights out!” I’m camping out with them in their room this week while my wife and two children are away. They’d much rather read until I come to bed for a few moments of reading myself before nodding off, book in hand.

The days begin to take their autumnal shape as the rhythms of a regular school and work day begin to emerge from the free-form life of summer. I venture back to my classroom for a few hours each day. The list of summer projects glares at me triumphantly from the kitchen desk, with barely one project completed. And I’ve just added refinishing the old church pew I bought for my entryway to the list.

Here, I am reminded to still myself, to sit in the sanctuaries of daily life despite the “miles to go before I sleep.” This is the companion piece to “Meditations: Lauds” written about a month apart back in 2019 … My seven-year-old has just come down the stairs again – for the third time. Perhaps it’s time I ascend the stairs and savor the waning minutes of the day. My deepest thanks to those of you who actually read and respond to these brief moments of deepening. You are a blessing!

Meditations: Vespers

Vincent H. Anastasi - 2019

I drift between the subterranean glow
of the LED cellar lights
and the afternoon summer sun
snooping about my library window.

I descend to kneel
before the sliding compound miter saw,
another prepared board on the altar
momentarily lit by a precise red flame,
the toothed blade held aloft
then plunged in a sudden mechanical wail.
By design I have learned to rend and pierce,
to cope and piece together a sanctuary
where meditations like these can be fostered
or one can simply sit,
       windows thrown wide
       patiently awaiting an evening repast,
or stretch heavenward, once again,
contented in the barred owl’s dusky lament
and the sun settling down beneath horizon’s sheet.