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.

We Are No Longer Alone: When Enough Was No Longer Enough

For hours, the flowers were enough.
Before the flowers, Adam had been enough.
Before Adam, just being a rib was enough.
Just being inside Adam’s body, near his heart, enough.
Enough to be so near his heart, enough
to feel that sweet steady rhythm, enough
to be a part of something bigger was enough.
And before the rib, being clay was enough.
And before clay, just being earth was enough.
And before earth, being nothing was enough.
But then enough was no longer enough.
The flowers bowed their heads, as if to say, enough,
and so Eve, surrounded by peonies, and alone enough,
wished very hard for something, and the wish was enough
to make the pinecone grow wings; the wish was enough
to point to the sky, say bird, and wait for something to sing.
~Nicole Callihan “The Origin of Birds”

photo by Harry Rodenberger

We were created to be enough,
but for us enough was no longer enough so we reached for more.

We ended up stripped and stark — as if fall and winter would be the ending of all things, but of course they are not. We will not sleep forever.

When I am down to my bare and broken essentials — the bleak and muddy and the too-early dark — I am the pinecone in the dirt wishing for the strength of wings and miraculously granted the gift of flight and a voice to sing.

I know this darkness is not the ending. 

Never has been.  Never will be.

Whence comes this rush of wings afar
Following straight the NoÎl star?
Birds from the woods, in wondrous flight
Bethlehem seek this Holy Night

“Tell us, ye birds, why come ye here
Into this stable, poor and drear?”
“Hast’ning, we seek the new-born King
And all our sweetest music bring.”

Hark! how the greenfinch bears his part
Philomel, too, with tender heart
Chants from her leafy dark retreat
Re, mi, fa, sol, in accents sweet

Angels and shepherds, birds of the sky
Come where the Son of God doth lie;
Christ on earth with man doth dwell
Join in the shout, “Noël, Noël!”
~French Carol

The Face of a Frog

I miss the friendship with the pine tree and the birds
that I had when I was ten.
And it has been forever since I pushed my head
under the wild silk skirt of the waterfall.

The big rock on the shore was the skull of a dead king
whose name we could almost remember.
Under the rooty bank you could dimly see
the bunk beds of the turtles.

Nobody I know mentions these things anymore.
It’s as if their memories have been seized, erased, and relocated
among flowcharts and complex dinner-party calendars.

Now I want to turn and run back the other way,
barefoot into the underbrush,
getting raked by thorns, being slapped in the face by branches.

Down to the muddy bed of the little stream
where my cupped hands make a house, and

I tilt up the roof
to look at the face of the frog.
~Tony Hoagland, from “Nature” Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty

I grew up on a small farm with several acres of woodland. It was my near-daily retreat until I left for college: I walked among twittering birds, skittering wild bunnies, squirrels and chipmunks, busy ant hills and trails, blowing leaves, swimming tadpoles, falling nuts, waving wildflowers, large firs, pines, cottonwoods, maples and alder trees.

I had a favorite “secret” spot sitting perched on a stump where a large rock provided a favorite warm sunning spot for salamanders. They and I would make eye contact and ponder what the other was thinking.

It was where I felt closest to Creation, more so than the house I slept in with my family, the busy classrooms, the dentist office and retirement home where I worked.

Only our church sanctuary was such a thin place with a “can almost touch the hem of God” reality.

At college I searched for a place as private, as quiet, as serene, as full of the voices of creation – nothing ever matched the woods of my childhood home. I gave up as I lived a decade in the city and almost forgot what a familiar woods felt like.

I’ve come close again on this farm we’ve stewarded for thirty years, but the constant distractions are much greater now than when I was a child. I can’t empty out my head and heart as completely to receive the gifts of the field and trees and woodlands. I have greater worries, bigger responsibilities, places to go, people to see, things to do, a shorter timeline to get what I want to accomplish done …

Perhaps the time will come again to simply gaze into the eyes of a fellow creature, and invite them in with a head and heart ready to receive what they and our Creator have to give.


Flung and Strewn

Open your hands, lift them.—William Stafford, “Today”

The parking space beside the store when you
were late. The man who showed up just in time
to hold the door when you were juggling five
big packages. The spider plant that grew—
though you forgot to water it. The new
nest in the tree outside your window. Chime
of distant church bells when you’re lonely. Rhyme
of friendship. Apples. Sky a trove of blue.

And who’s to say these miracles are less
significant than burning bushes, loaves
and fishes, steps on water. We are blessed
by marvels wearing ordinary clothes—
how easily we’re fooled by simple dress—
Oranges. Water. Leaves. Bread. Crows.
~Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, “But You Thought You Knew What a Sign Looked Like” from  Naked for Tea

It was a dark and stormy night. Leaves were strewn everywhere this morning, but more cling tightly to branches, waiting for another night, another storm to come, knowing it will be sooner rather than later.

I feel a bit strewn myself, bits and pieces of me flung here and there, while the rest of me remains clinging, hanging on for dear life, wondering what comes next.

Can I weather the weather of life, tossed and drenched?

Truly, marvels and miracles abound wherever I look, sometimes dressed so plainly I miss them first time around. In fact, they are so glorious, I am blinded by them. To see these signs, to know their significance, I must simply open my hands, lift up my eyes, quiet my troubled heart and be content.

When the time comes to let go, I’ll be ready.

Something Finished

Gold of a ripe oat straw, gold of a southwest moon,
What is there for you in the birds, the birds, the birds, crying
down on the north wind in September, acres of birds spotting
the air going south?

Is there something finished? And some new beginning on the
way?

I cried over beautiful things knowing no beautiful thing lasts.
~Carl Sandburg from “Fall Time” and “Autumn Movement”

My summer of “no doctoring” finishes today. I return to part-time clinical work tomorrow; a new beginning is on the way.

I am readying myself.

I consider how it will feel to put the stethoscope back on and return to spending most of my daylight hours in window-less rooms. Several months of freedom to wander and wonder will be tough to give up.

However, when I meet my first patient of the day, I’m “all in.” Someone is needing my help more than I need time off. The wind has shifted, it is time to migrate back to the work I was called to do over forty years ago.

Still I will look for beautiful things where I can find them, knowing that even though they don’t last, they will always be well worth the weeping.

Golden Coloratura

All night the crickets chirp,   
Like little stars of twinkling sound  
In the dark silence.    

They sparkle through the summer stillness
With a crisp rhythm:
They lift the shadows on their tiny voices.

But at the shining note of birds that wake,
Flashing from tree to tree till all the wood is lit—
O golden coloratura of dawn!—
The cricket-stars fade slowly,
One by one.
~Leonora Speyer, “Crickets at Dawn” from A Canopic Jar

Most mornings here tend to be gray — primarily unassuming and humble. Sunrise usually happens without much visual fanfare – blink and I miss it.

Instead I listen for morning rather than watch for it.

As summer night sounds fade out, the dawn songs begin. Birds become the harbingers where frogs and crickets let off.

There are a few special days when the light ascends gilded and decides to linger while the whole atmosphere is transformed. The air itself is burnished and shining, and all that is touched turns to gold. Like a stage production about to begin, the curtain rises to the sounds of an overture while a resplendent backdrop is illuminated.

So I wait, a transfixed audience, for the day’s aria to begin.

Breathing the Spirit of the Seasons

photo of Grandma Emma by Sara Larsen

With my arms raised in a vee,
I gather the heavens and bring
my hands down slow together,
press palms and bow my head.

I try to forget the suffering,
the wars, the ravage of land
that threatens songbirds,
butterflies, and pollinators.

The ghosts of their wings flutter
past my closed eyes as I breathe
the spirit of seasons, the stirrings
in soil, trees moving with sap.

With my third eye, I conjure
the red fox, its healthy tail, recount
the good of this world, the farmer
tending her tomatoes, the beans

dazzled green al dente in butter,
salt and pepper, cows munching
on grass. The orb of sun-gold
from which all bounty flows.
~Twyla M. Hansen “Trying to Pray” from
 Rock. Tree. Bird

There is much to pray about.
The list is endless and the need overwhelming.

Where even to begin?

It is for good reason we are advised by Paul to “pray without ceasing” (the word in Greek is adialeiptos or “uninterruptedly”) in 1 Thessalonians 5:17.

It is not only when we audibly and in form,
address our petitions to the Deity that we pray.
We pray without ceasing.
Every secret wish is a prayer.
Every house is a church;
the corner of every street is a closet of devotion.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson in his sermon: Pray Without Ceasing

A farmer may have an addendum:
every barn is a church,
every moment kneeling and weeding the soil an act of devotion,
every moment of care-taking God’s creation an act of sacramental obedience.
Praying without ceasing in the course of one’s day.

Yet even before we clasp our hands together,
we are told to “Rejoice always.”
-Rejoice before complaining.
-Rejoice before requesting.
-Rejoice before losing heart.

Let me be breathing in the spirit of the seasons, overwhelmed by joy, before I talk with God. He knows which tears are which.