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.

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

God is Weeping

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “The Rainy Day”

People who grow up in the Pacific Northwest suffer from peculiar climate-related disorders unique to only to us.   This deserves a page in the next version of the DSM — the diagnostic psychiatric manual:  we in the PNW don’t feel 100% normal unless it is raining.  We love weather like we’re having right now – full on gray and full on wet with threats of northeast winds and snow.

In fact, we born and bred web-footers can feel downright depressed when it is sunny all the time.  We groan inwardly when yet another day dawns bright instead of gray, we start to look longingly at accumulating clouds,  and we get positively giddy when morning starts with a drizzly mist.

It’s difficult to say what exactly is at work in brain chemistry in cases like this.  It is the opposite effect of classically described Seasonal Affective Disorder diagnosed especially in those transplants from more southerly climates who get sadder and slowed down with darker days and longer nights.   In people like me, born a stone’s throw from Puget Sound, the more sunlight there is, the more doldrums I feel:  desolaration (desolation from too much solar exposure).   The grayer the day, the wetter the sky–> a lightening of the heart and the spirit:  precipilicity (felicity arising from precipitation).

Like most northwesterners, I have low Vitamin D levels even in the summer.  It just isn’t seemly to expose all that skin to UV light.

So I celebrate the profound relief of a rainy day, thank you.   There would be no internal conflict about feeling compelled to go outside to work up a sweat and soak up the elusive sun rays.   There would only be the cozy invitation to stay inside to read and write and sleep.

I know I’m not alone in this disorder.  Many of us are closet sufferers but would never admit it in polite company.  To complain about sunny days is perceived as meteorologically, spiritually and poetically incorrect.  It is time to acknowledge that many of us are in this wet boat rowing together.

Robert Frost (definitely not a northwesterner) confessed his own case of desolaration in the first stanza of his poem November Guest:

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.

And Jack Handey, the satirist, summarizes the real reason for the guilty pleasure of the northwest native in liking rain:

“If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to tell him is ‘God is crying.’
And if he asks why God is crying, another cute thing to tell him is ‘Probably because of something you did.”

Okay, okay, I guess we’ve been really naughty to have so much rainfall in the last month. We should repent for our misbehavior and eventually God’s tears will dry up and the sun would shine again.

Then again, maybe God likes a good rain and a good cry as much as we do.

With A Heavy Heart

Outside the house the wind is howling
and the trees are creaking horribly.
This is an old story
with its old beginning,
as I lay me down to sleep.
But when I wake up, sunlight
has taken over the room.
You have already made the coffee
and the radio brings us music
from a confident age. In the paper
bad news is set in distant places.
Whatever was bound to happen
in my story did not happen.
But I know there are rules that cannot be broken.
Perhaps a name was changed.
A small mistake. Perhaps
a woman I do not know
is facing the day with the heavy heart
that, by all rights, should have been mine.
~Lisel Mueller “In November”

It does not escape me~
(I wake every day knowing this)
the earthquake happened somewhere else,
a tornado leveled some other town,
a plane full of ordinary people like me was shot out of the sky,
a drunk driver destroyed a family,
a fire left a forest and homes in ashes,
a missing son’s body was found frozen in an avalanche,
a devastating diagnosis darkens
someone’s remaining days.

No mistake has been made,
yet I wake knowing this part of my story
has not yet visited me-
the heavy heart
that should have been mine
awaits,
still breaking,
still bleeding,
still beating
still believing miracles can happen.

Becoming Holy Ground

It can happen like that:
meeting at the market,
buying tires amid the smell
of rubber, the grating sound
of jack hammers and drills,
anywhere we share stories,
and grace flows between us.

  
The tire center waiting room
becomes a healing place
as one speaks of her husband’s
heart valve replacement, bedsores
from complications. A man
speaks of multiple surgeries,
notes his false appearance
as strong and healthy.

 
I share my sister’s death
from breast cancer, her
youngest only seven.
A woman rises, gives
her name, Mrs. Henry,
then takes my hand.
Suddenly an ordinary day
becomes holy ground.
~ Stella Nesanovich, “Everyday Grace,” from Third Wednesday

The only use of a knowledge of the past is to equip us for the present. The present contains all that there is. It is holy ground; for it is the past, and it is the future.
~Alfred North Whitehead

It matters less what has happened or what will happen.  What matters is happening right this very moment – in the tire center waiting room, the grocery store check out line, the exam room of the doctor’s office. Are we living fully in the present and paying attention?

We are sentient creatures with a proclivity to bypass the present to dwell on the past or fret about the future.   This has been true of humans since our creation.   Those observing Buddhist tradition and New Age believers of the “Eternal Now” call our attention to the present moment through the teaching of “mindfulness” to bring a sense of peacefulness and fulfillment.

Mindfulness is all well and good but I don’t believe the present is about our minds.  It is not about us at all.

The present is an ordinary day transformed to holy ground where we are allowed to tread:

We are asked to remove our shoes in an attitude of respect to a loving God who gives us life.
We are to approach each other and each sacred moment with humility. 
We turn aside from the dailiness of our lives to look at what He has promised.
We are connected to one another through our Maker.

There can be no other moment just like this one, so this is no time to waste.  There may be no other beyond this one.  Right now, this moment sorely barefoot, I am simply grateful to be here and connected to each of you.