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.

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.

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.

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.

A Stretch of Place and Time

We never know if the turn
is into the home stretch.
We call it that—a stretch
of place and time—with vision of straining,
racing.  We acknowledge
each turn with cheers
though we don’t know
how many laps remain.
But we can hope the course
leads on far and clear
while the horses have strength
and balance on their lean legs,
fine-tuned muscles, desire
for the length of the run.
Some may find the year smooth,
others stumble at obstacles
along the way.  We never know
if the finish line will be reached
after faltering, slowing,
or in mid-stride, leaping forward.
~Judy Ray, “Turning of the Year”

photos by Emily Vander Haak

I’m well along on this journey, yet still feeling tethered to the starting gate. I’m testing how far the residual connection to beginning will stretch; there is still a strong tug to return back to how things were, like a bungee cord at the limits of its capacity.

Yet there is also an inexorable pull to destinations ahead. I know what once was a vital conduit to the past is withering with age, so I must move forward, unsure what is around the bend.

It can be turbulent out there without former ties and tethers as anchors in the storm. It is possible I will lose my balance, stumble and fall and end up limping the rest of the way.

When I hear the call of a new year, I know it is time to simply face the wind and surge ahead to what is coming next, no matter what it may be. I can choose to struggle along, worried and anxious about the unknown, or I can leap ahead at a skip and jump, jubilant, eager, ready, feeling nearly weightless in my anticipation of a joyful finish line.

photo by Emily Vander Haak

Reaching For Air

The fish are drifting calmly in their tank
between the green reeds, lit by a white glow
that passes for the sun. Blindly, the blank
glass that holds them in displays their slow
progress from end to end, familiar rocks
set into the gravel, murmuring rows
of filters, a universe the flying fox
and glass cats, Congo tetras, bristle-nose
pleocostemus all take for granted. Yet
the platys, gold and red, persist in leaping
occasionally, as if they can’t quite let
alone a possibility—of wings,
maybe, once they reach the air? They die
on the rug. We find them there, eyes open in surprise.
~Kim Addonizio “Aquarium,” from The Philosopher’s Club

My plecostamus is dead.  Belly up on the bottom of the tank, no pulsing mouth or breathing gills. He had been official tank custodian.  Almost a foot long, with a face that only a mother could love.  I tried for ten years, I really did.  I just could not love that face.

His spiny armor and rolling eyes unnerved me. For ten long years.  He was a throwback to the dinosaur age, swimming shark-like in our living room, reminding me that mere millennia ago, creatures like him controlled the earth.  And then they were gone.  But the plecostamus remembers those days and controlled his little watery kingdom.

It was a rather pleasant relationship with him at first, when my tank was new and he was an under two inch soft little sucker fish, diligent and unobtrusive.  He alone survived two tanks springing leaks, complete with temporary quarters for a few days in 5 gallon buckets.  He survived winter storms with no electricity, so the water temperature dropped way below a level any sensible South American river fish would tolerate.  Yet he did.  He kept growing.  His fins got sharper and pokier.  He watched many other fish come and go over the years, and when they went, he helped clean up the remains so I was never sure what had happened to the missing party.  Unnerving indeed.

He was an efficient glass cleaner with his sucking lips, so I rarely had to erase the algae, like chalk from a board. When I did reach in, way past my elbow, to clean house underwater, I’d sometimes startle him from his hiding place behind the rocks or the fairy tale castle. He’d sweep by my arm with a wave of his spikey fins scratching my skin, and roll his eyes at me, indignant at the disturbance, and the implication he was not doing his job.

As he aged, I wondered a number of times if he had died, as he lay still on the bottom of the tank, rather than hiding as usual.  I would reach in tentatively with a net and brush his fins and he’d dart out from under my touch.  In his old age weariness, he began leaving algae behind on the glass, and couldn’t keep up with the house cleaning without occasional help.  I know the feeling.

And now today, after all those years, through all those tribulations, including all those times I inwardly cringed when I gazed at his homely face, he is gone, buried deep in the compost pile.   I cannot say that I will miss him.

I’m not sure I’m ready to commit to another baby plecostamus, almost cute in a soft and pliant way, if it means a long term commitment like this last one.

But then, who can I count on to do the cleaning?