Here I Am, Still Alive

And that is just the point…
how the world, moist and beautiful,
calls to each of us to make a new and serious response.

That’s the big question,
the one the world throws at you every morning.
“Here you are, alive.
Would you like to make a comment?”
~Mary Oliver

Everyone needs a reminder about the privilege of waking up still alive. Having had that opportunity this morning, I’d like to make a comment.

This has happened at least two times over seven decades, and yesterday provided a third reminder. The common theme is that each involved my driving to work in the morning.

Maybe that alone should tell me something.

Yesterday, my 200,000 + mileage 14 year old hybrid suddenly died while I was going 60 mph on the busy interstate on my way to work. There are not many options for a driver in such a scenario: no power steering to help navigate out of traffic, nothing but coasting to a stop in the safest place available. God’s hand controlled that moment as there was no car to the right of me, so I was able to ease over to an exit that I could roll down, with a spot at the bottom where I could sit with my hazard lights blinking until a very kind policeman pushed me with his car onto a quieter residential side street to wait over two hours for a two truck. Needless to say, I was very late for my clinic day but very grateful to show up at all.

My car awaits diagnosis and prognosis.
I can tell you my diagnosis is “gratefully still alive.
My prognosis is: “still alive enough to make a comment.

My first “dead car in the middle of a busy city street” story was forty years ago during morning rush hour when my ancient Oldsmobile decided to drop its drive train on a rainy steep hill in Seattle as I was driving to my neurology rotation at Harborview Hospital. God’s hand managed to hold my emergency brake in place until a police car with protective flashing lights appeared within seconds to park behind me while streams of highly annoyed traffic passed by. It took a tow truck only 15 minutes to remove me and my car from what could well have been a much bigger mess. Yes, I showed up late and grateful to my work day.

My most dramatic near miss was twenty years ago. I was driving into work on one of our county’s rural two lane roads, going the speed limit of 50 mph, all while in a grumbly mood and wishing I was heading somewhere else on a bright and sunny day.  My mind was busy with the anticipation of my workday when I noticed a slight shift to the right by the driver in the car ahead of me.  It inexplicably moved over the fog line and then suddenly I realized why, in a moment of stark clarity.  A huge empty gravel truck and trailer rig was heading north, moving at the speed limit, the driver seemingly oblivious to the fact his huge trailer was starting to whip back and forth.  As he approached me much too quickly, his trailer was whipping back to the center line, approaching me full force at a ninety degree angle from the truck, filling up the entire lane in front of me.  I had no choice but to run my car off the road into a grassy field to avoid being hit head on by the still attached but runaway trailer.  Only by God’s hand were there no deep ditches, telephone poles or trees at that particular point in the road.  My car dove right into tall grass, which enfolded me, like a shroud of green,  shielding me from a tangle of metal and certain death.  It was a near miss, but a miss nonetheless.

I sat still, gripping the steering wheel, gathering my wits and picking up what was left of my frayed nerves from where they had been strewn, feeling my heart race from the sheer relief of still being alive.

I was able to drive out of the field and happily headed to work to do what I initially planned to do that day, abruptly made aware of the privilege of having a life to live, a job to go to, and a grassy field that rescued me.

It was only later, while calling my husband about what had just taken place, that I cried.  Until then, I couldn’t stop smiling. 

Now, I don’t feel the need for any more such events to remind me to make comments, other than:
Here I am, still alive.

A Prayer Under This Sky

Tonight at sunset walking on the snowy road,
my shoes crunching on the frozen gravel, first

through the woods, then out into the open fields
past a couple of trailers and some pickup trucks, I stop

and look at the sky. Suddenly: orange, red, pink, blue,
green, purple, yellow, gray, all at once and everywhere.

I pause in this moment at the beginning of my old age
and I say a prayer of gratitude for getting to this evening

a prayer for being here, today, now, alive
in this life, in this evening, under this sky.
~David Budbill “Winter: Tonight: Sunset”
from While We’ve Still Got Feet

If I don’t remember, each day, no matter how things feel, no matter how tired or distracted I am, no matter how worried, or fearful or heartsick:

it is up to me to distill my very existence down to this one moment of beauty that will never come again.

One breath, one blink, one pause, one whispered word: thanks.

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.

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.

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.

We Bring Ourselves

… we can make a house called tomorrow.
What we bring, finally, into the new day, every day,

Is ourselves.  And that’s all we need
To start.  That’s everything we require to keep going.
 

Look back only for as long as you must,
Then go forward into the history you will make.

Be good, then better.  Write books.  Cure disease.
Make us proud.  Make yourself proud.

And those who came before you?  When you hear thunder,
Hear it as their applause.

~Albert Rios from “A House Called Tomorrow”

All days are sacred days to wake
New gladness in the sunny air.
Only a night from old to new;
Only a sleep from night to morn.
The new is but the old come true;
Each sunrise sees a new year born.
~Helen Hunt Jackson from “New Year’s Morning”

We awake glad this morning,
breathing deeply of the sacred that
glistens in the light of a soft sunrise.
Each day is a fresh start,
a gift from those who have gone before.
We bring ourselves to His table,
renewing our covenant
with God and each other.
And the trees of the field will clap their hands…

What Gift Shall I Bring?

Seven-thirty. Driving northwest out of town,
the snowscape dusky, sky tinted smoky peach.

In the rear view mirror, a bright orange glow
suffuses the stubbly treeline. Suddenly a column
of brightness shoots from the horizon,
a pillar of fire! One eye on the road,
I watch behind me the head of a golden
child begin to push up between the black knees
of the hills. Two weeks out from Solstice, the sun
so near winter it seems to rise in the south.
A fiery angel stands over his cradle of branches.
And what strange travelers come to honor him?
And what gift will I bring to him this day?
~Thomas Smith “Advent Dawn” from The Glory

In trees still dripping night some nameless birds
Woke, shook out their arrowy wings, and sang,
Slowly, like finches sifting through a dream.
The pink sun fell, like glass, into the fields.

Two chestnuts, and a dapple gray,
Their shoulders wet with light, their dark hair streaming,
Climbed the hill. The last mist fell away.

And under the trees, beyond time’s brittle drift,
I stood like Adam in his lonely garden
On that first morning, shaken out of sleep,
Rubbing his eyes, listening, parting the leaves,
Like tissue on some vast, incredible gift.

~ Mary Oliver – “Morning In a New Land”

I want to wake each morning as if it were my first look at the world: to be astonished at the slow advance of the light and how the detail of the landscape begins to emerge from the mist of darkness.

As it is, I emerge from night covering my eyes, barely willing to look through my fingers to see what the day may hold. It is not the my first look at morning after all; I’m too aware there is heavy baggage to carry from the day before, and the day before that. The freshness of a new start is fermented by my history.

What gift can I bring to each new day? What gift can I bring to the God who came down to dwell in this weedy garden alongside me, help me carry my baggage and shoulder my load – indeed to carry me to my rest?

I will open my eyes and take in the morning, unwrapping it like the precious gift it is.

The best gift we can give to God is to receive the gift of Him with the astonishment it deserves.