At the soft place in the snowbank Warmed to dripping by the sun There is the smell of water. On the western wind the hint of glacier. A cottonwood tree warmed by the same sun On the same day, My back against its rough bark Same west wind mild in my face. A piece of spring Pierced me with love for this empty place Where a prairie creek runs Under its cover of clear ice And the sound it makes, Mysterious as a heartbeat, New as a lamb. ~Tom Hennen, “In the Late Season” from Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems.
While walking the sloping hillside of our farm, if I listen carefully, I can hear trickling under the snow. I can’t see it but I can hear and feel and smell the water; as a hidden and mysterious melt happens. Thawing under my feet- as winter drains away, spring is on the move.
I witness that which I have no control over, this subtle softening of frozen ground- unseen, yet as evident as the steady beating of my heart as I too begin to thaw and melt through the miracle of flowing grace into whatever comes next.
It’s easy to love a deer But try to care about bugs and scrawny trees Love the puddle of lukewarm water From last week’s rain. Leave the mountains alone for now. Also the clear lakes surrounded by pines. People are lined up to admire them. Get close to the things that slide away in the dark. Be grateful even for the boredom That sometimes seems to involve the whole world. Think of the frost That will crack our bones eventually. ~Tom Hennen “Love for Other Things” from Darkness Sticks To Everything: Collected and New Poems
Some people complain that this constricted life — due to pandemic COVID limitations and the restrictions placed upon us — is boring.
Nothing to do, no places to go, no people to see.
Yet I haven’t been bored – not even for a minute. There is so much to see and do right in my own backyard which I rarely had time to observe and appreciate previously. Rather than spending 6-8 hours a week in my car commuting, I’m gifted that time to work at my desk, do chores on the farm, walk with the dogs, and muse about how things have changed.
One person’s boredom is another person’s liberating freedom.
But we have it easy compared to those whose jobs can’t be done from home. We can grow our own food here, but that isn’t an option for those living in a high rise. We can isolate and still maintain our connections virtually with our friends and family. I know I am blessed with options.
This COVID-tide will end eventually and our stack of responsibilities will resume, but I’m wiser than I was before. I don’t need to live life at break-neck speed. I don’t need constant entertainment and novel experiences. No longer do I need to feel indispensable because it is so completely obvious that I’m not.
I didn’t need this virus to remind me of my mortality and my shortening days on earth, yet it has.
Our time here is too brief to waste even a minute. So I live each moment to the fullest, knowing it will never come again.
Chunky and noisy, but with stars in their black feathers, they spring from the telephone wire and instantly
they are acrobats in the freezing wind. And now, in the theater of air, they swing over buildings,
dipping and rising; they float like one stippled star that opens, becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again; and you watch and you try but you simply can’t imagine
how they do it with no articulated instruction, no pause, only the silent confirmation that they are this notable thing,
this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin over and over again, full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us, even in the leafless winter, even in the ashy city. I am thinking now of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots trying to leave the ground, I feel my heart pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things. I want to be light and frolicsome. I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing, as though I had wings. ~Mary Oliver “Starlings in Winter” from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays
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
…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
Watching a winter starlings’ murmuration is a visceral experience – my heart leaps to see it happen above me. I can get 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.
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 exercise such unity from our designed and carefully constructed building blocks. We are frighteningly disparate and independent creatures, going our own way bumping and crashing without care, leaving so much body and spiritual wreckage behind.
To where has flown our mercy and tenderness? We have corporately lost our internal moral compass.
We figuratively and literally shoot each other in the back, trampling over and suffocating one another, in a reach for justice that seems right in our own eyes.
We even watch the daily death count rise in ever-increasing numbers, and still some resist doing what it takes to protect themselves and one another.
The sound of silence is muffled weeping.
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
In the shallows of the river After one o’clock in the afternoon Ice still An eighth of an inch thick. Night never disappears completely But moves among the shadows On the bank Like a glimpse of fur. Meanwhile Trees Grass Flies and spiderwebs Appear alone in the flat air. The naked aspens stand like children Waiting to be baptized And the goldenrod too is stripped down To its bare stalk In the cold Even my thoughts Have lost their foliage. ~Tom Hennen“At the Beginning of Winter”, from Looking Into The Weather.
My thoughts are stripped bare these days, no flowers or flourishing foliage left behind- just stark rows of naked branches, waiting, orderly and plain.
It is the nature of winter to think only of the essentials when night is always creeping around the edges of midday.
There is silence outside and echoing in my head, while waiting for something, ~anything~ remarkable to bud out and bloom.
Let us step outside for a moment As the sun breaks through clouds And shines on wet new fallen snow, And breathe the new air. So much has died that had to die this year. We are dying away from things. It is a necessity—we have to do it Or we shall be buried under the magazines, The too many clothes, the too much food.
Let us step outside for a moment Among ocean, clouds, a white field, Islands floating in the distance. They have always been there. But we have not been there.
Already there are signs. Young people plant gardens. Fathers change their babies’ diapers And are learning to cook.
Let us step outside for a moment. It is all there Only we have been slow to arrive At a way of seeing it. Unless the gentle inherit the earth There will be no earth. ~May Sarton from “New Year Poem”
Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next. ~Frederick Buechnerfrom Beyond Words
This year I have been paying close attention to what makes me weep. During 2020, I have had more than ample opportunity to find out — from my tears — the secret of who I am, where I have come from, and for the salvation of my soul, where I am to be next.
My pockets contain hand sanitizer and kleenex, stowed right next to my mask.
In previous years, my tears flowed while spending time with far-flung children and grandchildren for the holidays — reading books and doing puzzles together and reminiscing about what has been and what could be. It was about singing grace together before a meal and my voice breaking with precious words of gratitude. My tears certainly had to do with bidding farewell until we meet again — gathering them in for that final hug and then that difficult letting-go and waving goodbye as they round the corner and disappear.
This year, that had to happen on a screen or from behind masks. No hugs hello or goodbye. None of the usual ways we celebrate together. I feel bereft as have countless other families around the globe. Some never had opportunity to say their final goodbye – too much has died this year.
As our children grew up, we encouraged them to go where their hearts told them they were needed and called to go, even if thousands of miles away from their one-time home on this farm. And so they went.
I too was let go once and though I would try to look back, too often in tears, I learned to set my face toward the future, seeking how the sun might break through the clouds in my life. It led me to this marriage, this family, this farm, this work, this church, to more tears and heartbreak, to more letting go. And it will continue if I’m granted more years to weep again and again with gusto and grace.
This year my tears flow for what could not be. For too many families, their tears flow for who now is missing and will never return. My tears flow for the pain and sadness of disagreement and angry words.
Spreading faster than COVID is the viral expansion of toxic misinformation and conspiracy theories sowing doubt and distrust. Masks are useless to protect people exposed to a deficiency of simple common sense.
So this is where I must go next: to love so much and so deeply that my tears might make a small difference to those around me, like the sun breaking through the clouds.
From the tawny light from the rainy nights from the imagination finding itself and more than itself alone and more than alone at the bottom of the well where the moon lives, can you pull me
into December? a lowland of space, perception of space towering of shadows of clouds blown upon clouds over new ground, new made under heavy December footsteps? the only way to live?
The flawed moon acts on the truth, and makes an autumn of tentative silences. You lived, but somewhere else, your presence touched others, ring upon ring, and changed. Did you think I would not change?
The black moon turns away, its work done. A tenderness, unspoken autumn. We are faithful only to the imagination. What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth. What holds you to what you see of me is that grasp alone. ~Denise Levertov “Everything that Acts is Actual”
Within these days of early winter is disappearance of our familiar world, of all that grows and thrives, of new life and freshness, of hope slipping away in a scurry for survival.
Then there comes this moment of softness amid the bleak, a gift of grace and beauty, a glance of sunlight on a snowy hillside, a covering of low misty puffs in the valley, a moon lit landscape, a startling sunrise, clouds upon clouds and then I know the actual world is seized with Your Truth because You have grasped hold of it and won’t let go.
You wake up on a winter morning and pull up the shade, and what lay there the evening before is no longer there– the sodden gray yard, the dog droppings, the tire tracks in the frozen mud, the broken lawn chair you forgot to take in last fall. All this has disappeared overnight, and what you look out on is not the snow of Narnia but the snow of home, which is no less shimmering and white as it falls. The earth is covered with it, and it is falling still in silence so deep that you can hear its silence. It is snow to be shoveled, to make driving even worse than usual, snow to be joked about and cursed at, but unless the child in you is entirely dead, it is snow, too, that can make the heart beat faster when it catches you by surprise that way, before your defenses are up. It is snow that can awaken memories of things more wonderful than anything you ever knew or dreamed. ~Frederick Buechner “Sudden Snow”
There will be rest, and sure stars shining Over the roof-tops crowned with snow, A reign of rest, serene forgetting, The music of stillness holy and low.
I will make this world of my devising Out of a dream in my lonely mind. I shall find the crystal of peace, – above me Stars I shall find. ~Sara Teasdale “There Will Be Rest”
We had a surprise snowfall on the first day of winter last week.
In the Pacific Northwest, snow is often a once-a-winter event and usually doesn’t stay long. Here in the upper NW corner close to the Canadian border, it is accompanied by frigid northeast winds, blowing and drifting and making us all frankly miserable.
Yet this fresh-into-winter snowfall came down gently for several hours, without wind or drifts. It covered a multitude of messes that had accumulated over the previous year, making all things shimmer with newness. It made magic where before previously there had been drudgery.
And it silently lingered, like a long-lost memory I wanted to cling to, rolling it over and over in my mind like a snow ball that grows with each turn.
After a night of warm rain, it vanished and all was back to as it was. Yet I am better for having been visited by an unexpected snow, reminding me how my memories and dreams are not buried so deep that they are lost forever.