Little Life Safe

He calls the honeybees his girls although
he tells me they’re ungendered workers
who never produce offspring. Some hour drops,
the bees shut off. In the long, cool slant of sun,
spent flowers fold into cups. He asks me if I’ve ever
seen a Solitary Bee where it sleeps. I say I’ve not.
The nearest bud’s a long-throated peach hollyhock.
He cradles it in his palm, holds it up so I spy
the intimacy of the sleeping bee. Little life safe in a petal,
little girl, your few furious buzzings as you stir
stay with me all winter, remind me of my work undone.
~Heid E. Erdrich, from “Intimate Detail” from The Mother’s Tongue

The barn’s brown gable, the vine by the door,—    
Nothing changed but the hives of bees. 
Before them, under the garden wall,    
Forward and back, 
Went drearily singing the chore-girl small,    
Draping each hive with a shred of black. 
Trembling, I listened: the summer sun    
Had the chill of snow; 
For I knew she was telling the bees of one    
Gone on the journey we all must go! 
~John Greenleaf Whittier from “Telling the Bees”

An old Celtic tradition necessitates sharing any news from the household with the farm’s bee hives, whether cheery like a new birth or a wedding celebration or sad like a family death.  This ensures the hives’ well-being and continued connection to home and community – the bees are kept in the loop, so to speak, so they stay at home, not swarm and move on to a more hospitable place.

Each little life safe at home, each little life with work undone.

Good news seems always easy to share; we tend to keep bad news to ourselves so this tradition helps remind us that what affects one of us, affects us all.

These days, with instant news at our fingertips at any moment, bad news is constantly bombarding us. Like the bees in the hives of the field, we want to flee from it and find a more hospitable home.

I hope the Beekeeper, our Creator, comes personally to each of us to say:
“Here is what has happened. All will be well, dear one. We will navigate your little life together.”

Something Went Wrong

age nine

The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming. We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.” 
~Frederick Buechner from A Room Called Remember

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

~Ted Kooser, “Abandoned Farmhouse” from Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems. 

In 1959, when I was five years old, my father left his high school agriculture teaching position for a new supervisor position with the state.
I didn’t understand at the time the reasons for his leaving his job after 13 years.

Our family moved from a large 3 story farm house in a rural community to a 1950’s newer rambler style home just outside the city limits of the state capitol.  It was a big adjustment to move to a much smaller house without a basement or upper story, no garage, and no large haybarn nor chicken coop.  It meant most things we owned didn’t make the move with us.

The rambler had two side by side mirror image rooms as the primary central living space between the kitchen on one side and the hallway to the bedrooms on the other.  The living room could only be entered through the front door and the family room was accessed through the back door with a shared sandstone hearth in the center, containing a fireplace in each room.  The only opening between the rooms had a folding door shut most of the year.  In December, the door was opened to accommodate a Christmas tree, so it sat partially in the living room and depending on its generous width, spilled over into the family room.  That way it was visible from both rooms, and didn’t take up too much floor space.

The living room, because it contained the only carpeting in the house, and our “best” furniture,  was strictly off-limits. In order to keep our two matching sectional knobby gray fabric sofas,  a green upholstered chair and gold crushed velvet covered love seat in pristine condition, the room was to be avoided unless we had company. The carpet was never to develop a traffic pattern, there would be no food, beverage, or pet ever allowed in that room, and the front door was not to be used unless a visitor arrived.  The hearth never saw a fire lit on that side because of the potential of messy ashes or smoke smell. This was not a room for laughter, arguments or games and certainly not for toys. The chiming clock next to the hearth, wound with weighted cones on the end of chains, called out the hours without an audience.

One week before Christmas, a tree was chosen to fit in the space where it could overflow into the family room.  I particularly enjoyed decorating the “family room” side of the tree, using all my favorite ornaments that were less likely to break if they fell on the linoleum floor on that side of the door.

It was as if the Christmas tree became divided, with a “formal” side in the living room and a “real life” face on the other side where the living (and hurting) was actually taking place.

The tree straddled more than just two rooms.  Every year that tree’s branches reached out to shelter a family that was slowly, almost imperceptibly, falling apart, like the fir needles dropping to the floor to be swept away. Something was going wrong.

Each year since, the Christmas tree bearing those old ornaments from my childhood reminds me of a still room of mixed memories within me.  I am no longer wary of the past, and when I sweep up the fir needles that inevitably drop, I no longer weep.

The Dead Center of January

The night’s drifts
Pile up below me and behind my back,
Slide down the hill, rise again, and build
Eerie little dunes on the roof of the house.  
 

The moon and the stars
Suddenly flicker out, and the whole mountain   
Appears, pale as a shell.

Look, the sea has not fallen and broken   
Our heads. How can I feel so warm   
Here in the dead center of January? I can   
Scarcely believe it, and yet I have to, this is   
The only life I have. I get up from the stone.   
My body mumbles something unseemly
And follows me. Now we are all sitting here strangely   
On top of the sunlight.

~James Wright, “A Winter Daybreak Above Vence” from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose.

This is our fourth day of house arrest with roads icy and drifted and temperatures sub-freezing – a windchill below zero. What sun has appeared is ineffective, as if it were fake news on a winter day.

The prediction is for a dramatic turn-around in the next couple hours with temperatures rising 16 degrees with the advent of southerly “pineapple express” breezes.

I’ll believe it when I feel it. In the past, the drama of a south wind breaking the curse of the icy cold happens so rapidly, we could hear it before we felt it. The sound of ice and snow falling, taking branches with them in the woods was like the rat-a-tat of target shooting. None of us were ready for it and the trees were literally breaking in response to the warming winds.

We can grumble and mumble (and do) but this is the only life we have in the dead center of a January snow and wind storm. We’ll just sit tight braced against the cold, like the hungry birds that flock by the dozens at our feeders, waiting for the warming winds to carry us right into February, preferably unbroken.

Savoring a Bad Mood

I like these cold, gray winter days.
Days like these let you savor a bad mood. 
~Bill Watterson
from “Calvin and Hobbes”

The wind is keen coming over the ice;
it carries the sound of breaking glass.
And the sun, bright but not warm,
has gone behind the hill. Chill, or the fear
of chill, sends me hurrying home.
~Jane Kenyon from “Walking Alone in Late Winter”

Roused by faint glow at midnight
peering between slats
of window blinds
closed tight to a chill wind-

Bedroom becomes suffused
in ethereal light
from a moonless sky~
a million stars fall silent as

Snow light covers all,
settling gently while
tucking the downy corners
of the snowflake comforter

of heaven, plumping the pillows,
cushioning the landscape,
lightening and illuminating
a fearfully chilled and grumpy heart.

A Tumultuous Privacy of Storm

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind’s masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.

Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson from “The Snow-Storm”

The barn bears the weight
of the first heavy snow
without complaint.

White breath of cows
rises in the tie-up, a man
wearing a frayed winter jacket
reaches for his milking stool
in the dark.

The cows have gone into the ground,
and the man,
his wife beside him now.

A nuthatch drops
to the ground, feeding
on sunflower seed and bits of bread
I scattered on the snow.

The cats doze near the stove.
They lift their heads
as the plow goes down the road,
making the house
tremble as it passes.
~Jane Kenyon “This Morning”

We’ve seen harsher northeast winds, we’ve seen heavier snow. Yet there is something refreshingly disruptive about the once or twice a year overnight snow storm: it transforms, transcends and transfigures.

So we stay home when the weather and farms demand we do, to feed and water ourselves and our animals and the wild ones around us. It is a quiet and private and tumultuous time, a time to be attuned to one another.

The ultimate snow day, when all is atremble.

Ice and Fire Burns

Ice burns, and it is hard to the warm-skinned to distinguish one
sensation, fire, from the other, frost.
~A. S. Byatt from Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice

The predicted northeast arctic winds began last night with a minimum of snowfall but already have begun to take a toll: my face and hands are reddened just as if I’ve been in the sun too long.

Whether consumed by flames or frozen solid, resulting in ashes or blocks of ice — somehow the burn yields the same result.

Yet ashes remain ashes, only and forever after, mere dust.

If, instead, during this harsh blow, I’m burned into ice, I know the coming thaw may restore me, melt me slowly by dribs and drabs — no longer imprisoned.

The Back Pew

There’s coffee and pie
with a widow from the church.
Why do you sit
in the back pew? she asks.
I’m close enough, I say.
Can I sit back there with you?
I’ve always sat there, I tell her,
with my same two friends,
and their clicking oxygen pumps.
One sat next to me for years,
called herself my church girlfriend,
who metastasized, telling me she was
tired of waiting to die.
Now, there’s just my 88-year-old friend,
his pump echoing in the sanctuary,
and there’s that empty
space between us.
I’d like to invite the widow to sit there,
but I miss my dead friend’s laugh,
her loving stories about her husband,
and how we were always
glad to see one another.
I tell the widow all this.
What if I just sat there? she asks.
It’s a free country, I tell her,
and she smiles.
~Bruce Pemberton “Autumn 2017” from Third Wednesday, (Vol. XI, no. 2, 2018)

We used to occupy the back pew with our young family, figuring a wiggly child would be less disruptive if we stayed in the back. Our children would sing loud, draw pictures on index cards, take notes on the sermon and sometimes fall asleep under the bench. As they got older, we slowly made our way to the middle benches, and even sat in the very front when we walked into church late.

Sometimes we go sit in the back again for old times sake and find the most interesting group holding down those pews.

There is a fellow over ninety years old who still drives himself to church and he prefers the back because he can see everyone else who is in church without having to turn around. He decided the back was the place to be after seeing a 16 year old girl who always sat in the back pew bring her baby daughter to church for the first time, and how she was the center of a swarm of church ladies who came to oooh and aaah over the baby at the conclusion of the worship service. He told me he knew there was special grace and acceptance in that back bench.

It’s a loving and safe place to be. Everyone should try it sometime.

photo by Barb Hoelle