How It's Meant to Be


There comes a time in every fall
before the leaves begin to turn
when blackbirds group and flock and gather
choosing a tree, a branch, together
to click and call and chorus and clamor
announcing the season has come for travel.

Then comes a time when all those birds
without a sound or backward glance
pour from every branch and limb
into the air, as if on a whim
but it’s a dynamic, choreographed mass
a swoop, a swerve, a mystery, a dance

and now the tree stands breathless, amazed
at how it was chosen, how it was changed.

~Julie Cadwallader Staub “Turning” from Wing Over Wing

…yesterday I heard a new sound above my head
a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air

and when I turned my face upward
I saw a flock of blackbirds
rounding a curve I didn’t know was there
and the sound was simply all those wings,
all those feathers against air, against gravity
and such a beautiful winning:
the whole flock taking a long, wide turn
as if of one body and one mind.

How do they do that?

If we lived only in human society
what a puny existence that would be

but instead we live and move and have our being
here, in this curving and soaring world
that is not our own
so when mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives
and when, even more rarely, we unite and move together
toward a common good,

we can think to ourselves:

ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be.
~Julie Cadwallader Staub from “Blackbirds” from Wing Over Wing

Out of the dimming sky a speck appeared,
then another, and another.
It was the starlings going to roost. 
They gathered deep in the distance,  flock sifting into flock,
and strayed towards me, transparent and whirling, like smoke.
They seemed to unravel as they flew,
lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein. 
I didn’t move;
they flew directly over my head for half an hour. 

Each individual bird bobbed and knitted up and down
in the flight at apparent random, for no known reason except
that that’s how starlings fly, yet all remained perfectly spaced.
The flocks each tapered at either end from a rounded middle, like an eye.
Overhead I heard a sound of beaten air, like a million shook rugs, a muffled whuff.
Into the woods they sifted without shifting a twig,
right through the crowns of trees, intricate and rushing, like wind.

Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now,
birds winging through the gaps between my cells,
touching nothing, but quickening in my tissues, fleet?
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Watching the starlings’ murmuration is a visceral experience – my heart leaps to see it happen above me.  I feel queasy following its looping amoebic folding and unfolding path.

Thousands of individual birds move in sync with one another to form one massive organism existing solely because each tiny component anticipates and cooperates to avoid mid-air collisions.  It could explode into chaos but it doesn’t.  It could result in massive casualties but it doesn’t.  They could avoid each other altogether but they don’t – they come together with a purpose and reasoning beyond our imagining. Even the silence of their movement has a discernible sound of air rushing past wings.

We humans are made up of just such cooperating component parts, that which is deep in our tissues, programmed in our DNA.  Yet we don’t learn from our designed and carefully constructed building blocks.  We have become frighteningly disparate and independent creatures, each going our own way bumping and crashing without care.

We have lost our internal moral compass for how it is meant to be.

The rustling ruffling quiet of wings in the air is actually muffled weeping.

Cat and Mouse

Let us walk in the woods, says the cat.
I’ll teach you to read the tabloid of scents,
to fade into shadow, wait like a trap, to hunt.
Now I lay this plump warm mouse on your mat.

~Marge Piercy from “The Cat’s Song”

Pangur Bán and I at work,
Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:
His whole instinct is to hunt,
Mine to free the meaning pent.

Next thing an unwary mouse
Bares his flank: Pangur pounces.
Next thing lines that held and held
Meaning back begin to yield.

With his unsheathed, perfect nails
Pangur springs, exults and kills.
When the longed-for, difficult
Answers come, I too exult.

So it goes. To each his own.
No vying. No vexation.
Taking pleasure, taking pains,
Kindred spirits, veterans.

~ from “Pangur Bán” by a 9th century Irish monk

I’m still groggy every morning when I step out my front door onto the porch to make my way down a  gravel driveway to get the newspaper. More often than not, it is still quite dark out at 5:15 AM.  More often than not, my slippered foot lands on something a little crunchy and a little squishy and a lot icky on the welcome mat in front of my door.

The front porch cat — as opposed to the back porch cat, the garden shed cat, the hay barn cat, the horse barn cat and the 3 feral stray cats — predator that he is, leaves behind certain remnants of his prey’s….uh, body parts.  Mousey body parts or birdie body parts.  I assume, from the consistency of this little carnivore compost pile, these are unappealing to the kitty, so become the “leavings”, so to speak,  of the kill. Typically, it is a little mouse head, complete with little beady eyes, or a little bird head, complete with little beak, and something that looks suspiciously green and bulbous, like a gall bladder.  I don’t think heads or gall bladders are on my preferred delicacy list either. And they are certainly not on my list of things I like to wear on the bottom of my slipper.  Yet I do and I have.

I’m perplexed by this habit cats have of leaving behind the stuff they don’t want on the welcome mat, even the occasional whole shrew or field mouse, seemingly untouched by claw or incisor, but yet dead as a doornail on the doormat. 

Some cat owners naively think their cats are presenting them with “gifts” –kind of a sacrificial offering to the human god that feeds them.  Nonsense.  This is the universal trash heap for cats and a testimony to their utter disdain for humans.   Leave for the human the unappetizing and truly grotesque…

In my daily walk through life, I too have my share of things from my own hunting expeditions that I unceremoniously dump into a compost pail: things I don’t want, don’t need, can’t use, or abandon when I only want the palatable so the rest can rot.  Apple cores, peach pits, corn husks, banana peels, orange rinds…none have the gross-out characteristics of a tiny gall bladder but I can at least comfort myself with the knowledge they won’t end up on the bottom of anyone’s slipper.

photo by Nate Gibson

Stumbling into February

“Why, what’s the matter, 
That you have such a February face, 
So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness?” 
–  William Shakespeare,  Much Ado About Nothing

January was particularly dark and dank, especially last night as the month wrapped up with a deluge, flooding numerous roads in our rural county.  The beginning of February often feels like this: the conviction winter will never be finished messing with us. Our doldrums are deep; brief respite of sun and warmth too rare.

I feel it in the barn as I go about my daily routine.   The Haflingers are impatient and yearn for freedom, over-eager when handled, sometimes banging on the stall doors in their frustration at being shut in,  not understanding that the alternative is to stand outside all day in cold rain and wind.  To compensate for their confinement, I do some grooming of their thick winter coats, urging their hair to loosen and curry off in sheets over parts of their bodies, yet otherwise still clinging tight.  The horses are a motley crew right now, much like a worn ’60s shag carpet, uneven and in dire need of updating.  I prefer that no one see them like this and discourage visitors to the farm, begging people to wait a few more weeks until they (and I) are more presentable. Eventually I know the shag on my horses will come off, revealing the sheen of new short hair beneath, but when I look at myself, I’m unconvinced there is such transformation in store for me. Cranky, I  put one foot ahead of the other, get done what needs to be done, oblivious to the subtle renewal around me, refusing to believe even in the possibility.

It happened today.  Dawn broke bright and blinding and I heard the fields calling, so I heeded, climbing the hill and turning my face to the eastern light, soaking up all I could.  It was almost too much to keep my eyes open, as they are so accustomed to gray darkness. And then I stumbled across something extraordinary.

A patch of snowdrops sat blooming in an open space on our acreage, visible now only because of the brush clearing that was done last fall. Many of these little white upside down flowers were planted long ago around our house and yard, but  I had no idea they were also such a distance away, hiding underground. Yet there they’ve been, year after year, harbingers of the long-awaited spring to come in a few short weeks, though covered by the overgrowth of decades of neglect and invisible to me in my self-absorbed blindness.  I was astonished that someone, many many years ago, had carried these bulbs this far out to a place not easy to find, and planted them, hoping they might bless another soul sometime somehow.  Perhaps the spot marks a grave of a beloved pet, or perhaps it was simply a retreat of sorts, but there the blossoms had sprung from their sleep beneath the covering of years of fallen leaves and blackberry vines.

It was if I’d been physically hugged by this someone long dead,  now flesh and blood beside me, with work-rough hands, and dirty fingernails, and broad brimmed hat, and a satisfied smile.  I’m certain the secret gardener is no long living, and I reach back across those years in gratitude, to show my deep appreciation for the time and effort it took to place a foretaste of spring in an unexpected and hidden place.

I am thus compelled to look for ways to leave such a gift for someone to find 50 years hence as they likewise stumble blindly through too many gray days full of human frailty and flaw. Though I will be long gone,  I can reach across the years to grab them, hug them in their doldrums, lift them up and give them hope for what is to come.  What an astonishing thought that it was done for me and in reaffirming that promise of renewal,  I can do it for another.

Did You Cry?

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.
~Li-Young Lee, “The Gift”

Your father enters the poem
early,
storying past
the metal splinter
in your palm.

I set your paternity
—and the poem—
aside,
to reach back for my mother
and try to remember

what kind of day it was
when I played by the barn
where, it is said,
my own father raised pigs
(I do not remember this).

And what kind of day it was
when I found the barn,
door open,
silent

and tried to pluck silver lines
from silver webs
long-left,
then tendered my hand
on noiseless silvered wood

until my palms
were rife with the evidence
of my trying,

and mother
spent the night
with a silver tweezer,
counting as she went…
ninety-eight
ninety-nine
one hundred—

a ritual for my
tears.

And now I wonder,
Li-Young—did you cry,
and who was in the story,
and how many times
have you counted it since,
to forget,
and to remember.

~L. L. Barkat, “Li-Young Lee’s Splinter” from  Love, Etc.

I did, without ever wanting to, remove my child’s splinter, lance a boil, immobilize a broken arm, pull together sliced skin, clean many dirty wounds. It felt like I was always crossing the line between mommy and doctor.  But someone had to do it, and a four hour wait in the emergency room didn’t seem warranted.

My own child learned to cope with hurt made worse by someone they trusted to be comforter. I dealt with inflicting pain, temporary though it may be, to flesh that arose from my own flesh.  It hurt as much as if it were my own wound needing cleansing, not theirs.

Our wounds are His – He is constantly feeling our pain as He performs healing surgeries in our lives, not because He wants to but because He must, to save us from our own destruction.

Too often we yell and kick and protest in our distress, wanting it our way, not His way, making it all that much more difficult for both of us.

If only we can come to acknowledge His intervention is our salvage:
our tears to flow in relief, not anguish, we cling to His protection rather than pushing Him away, we kiss Him in gratitude as we are restored again and yet again.

Lost in Grayness

Moss the color of malachite weaves
its way up and under bark crevices of an old oak.
Enchanting furry tendrils reach out
as I walk past, my head burrowed
against the January morning fog.

Because it seems the sun
has vanished for the foreseeable future,
I am so lost in grayness I resist
the curled invitations
to dig deep, to engage
to applaud the colors of the fog
even as it surrounds me.
~Claire Weiner,”The Sun is in Hiatus”  from VerseWrights Journal

Come here
and share the rain
with me. You.
Isn’t it wonderful to hear
the universe
shudder. How old it all,
everything,
must be.
~Eileen Myles from “And Then the Weather Arrives”

I’m looking longingly at a weather prediction for rain all day.  I want gray, wet and miserable when I am buried in a windowless room at work all day.

Some winters bring too much perfection for too long:  360 degree views of snowy mountains and foothills that gleam in the sun, glistening crystalline fields of frost, sparkling clear waters in Puget Sound,  and bright blue cloudless skies. It is difficult for any northwest native to tolerate.    It is hard work keeping up the smiles and general good humor that goes with excellent weather.   There is always a clear expectation that one should be outside enjoying the rare sunny day, when it is far more appealing to curl up with a good book and a warm dog by a roaring fire, pretending not to notice how nice it is out.

We native Washingtonians are congenitally grumpy people, born to splash through puddles and lose our boots in footwear-sucking mud.    We don’t carry umbrellas because they are useless when our horizontal rain comes from the side, not from the top.   We wear sunglasses on mid-winter sunny days because we can’t possibly get our eyes to adjust to so much brightness.   We perpetually wear sweatshirt hoods and baseball caps, even when we are indoors, just in case,  because you never know.

Gray is preferred.   Gray with wet and cold is even better.   No one even questions my staying sequestered inside on days like this.   Being in a good mood would be highly suspect.

So I savor the opportunity to act outwardly disgruntled with such obvious justification as a rainy evening.

Downright crabby.  No apologies needed.  No excuses given.

It’s almost enough to put a smile on my face.

The Crumbling Air

It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God there was made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In a movement of the wind over grass.

There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions – that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.
~R.S. Thomas “The Moor”

There are mornings surrounded by His stilling presence~
when God is felt,
neither seen nor heard,
overtaking me
within each breath taken,
following the path of each glistening tear,
the air crumbling down around me,
its rich manna becoming the ground
reaching to meet my foot
with each step I take.

Drying Inward From the Edge

 
I know what my heart is like
      Since your love died:
It is like a hollow ledge
Holding a little pool
      Left there by the tide,
      A little tepid pool,
Drying inward from the edge.
~Edna St. Vincent Millay “Ebb”
 
 

I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded;
not with the fanfare of epiphany,
but with pain gathering its things,
packing up,
and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.

— Khaled Hosseini from The Kite Runner

My mother was seven years younger than I am now when my father left her for a younger woman.  For months my mother withered, crying until there were no more tears left, drying inward from her edges.  

It took ten years, but he came back like an overdue high tide.   She was sure her love had died but the tepid pool refilled, the incoming water cool to the touch, finally overflowing beyond imagining.