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.”

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.

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.

Day After Day

So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum 
in painted quiet and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the pitcher to the bowl
the World hasn’t earned
the world’s end.
~Wisława Szymborska “Vermeer”
trans. Clare Cavanagh & Stanisław Barańczak

I am struck by the expression of so much widespread hopelessness: the earth is being destroyed by humanity. Our continued existence is causing the world’s end.

This certainly isn’t the first time we’ve felt such desperation about our relationship with the world. It happened long ago when we chose to eat the fruit of the one forbidden tree and as a result were banned from the Garden. It happened with the plague when careless exposures wiped out entire villages. It happened when our wars left behind no living thing, leaving the ground itself cinders. It happened with the threat of imminent nuclear holocaust as missiles remain pointed at each other.

Still the sun rises and the sun sets, day after day. We don’t know for how much longer. Only God knows as God put us here with a plan.

So we continue to pour the milk as a sacrament: quietly, with great concentration, as that is the work we do, day after day. We still milk the cows and raise the wheat for bread and conceive children and raise them up as best we can. As long as we continue to do the work of the Garden, even while we dwell outside it, we are not causing the apocalypse. It is God’s world, after all, and all that is in it.

So we keep milking and keep pouring.

My First Step Toward Not Returning

I was cold and leaned against the big oak tree
as if it were my mother wearing a rough apron
of bark, her upraised arms warning of danger.
Through those boughs and leaves I saw
dark patches of sky…
I looked to the roof of mom and dad’s house
and wondered if the paisley couch patterns
would change during the day. My brother peeked
from a window and waved. When the bus came,
I pawed away from the trunk, fumbled,
and took my first step toward not returning.
~Dante Di Stefano from “With a Coat”

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
~T.S. Eliot from “Little Gidding”

I remember the restlessness of my late teens when I learned homesickness was not a terminal condition.  There was a world out there to be explored and I knew I was meant to be a designated explorer,  seeking out the extraordinary.

Ordinary simply wouldn’t do.  Ordinary was plentiful at home on a small farm with a predictable routine, a garden to be weeded and daily chores to be done, with middle-aged parents tight with tension in a struggling marriage.

On a whim at age nineteen, I applied for wild chimpanzee research study in Africa, and much to my shock, was accepted.  A year of academic and physical preparation as well as Swahili language study was required, so this was no impulsive adventure.   I had plenty of time to back out, reconsider and be ordinary again.

It was an adventure, far beyond what I had anticipated and trained for.  When I had to decide between more exploration, without clear purpose or funding, or returning home, I opted to return to the place I started, seeing home differently, as if for the first time,  after having been away.

Ordinary is a state of mind, not a place.  I can choose to be deeply rooted in the mundane, or I can seek the extraordinary in attentive exploration of my everyday world.

Returning back where I started – knowing the place for the first time.