The Soul Confined

 
It’s frail, this spring snow, it’s pot cheese
packing down underfoot. It flies out of the trees
at sunrise like a flock of migrant birds.
It slips in clumps off the barn roof,
wingless angels dropped by parachute.
Inside, I hear the horses knocking
aimlessly in their warm brown lockup,
testing the four known sides of the box
as the soul must, confined under the breastbone.
Horses blowing their noses, coming awake,
shaking the sawdust bedding out of their coats.
They do not know what has fallen
out of the sky, colder than apple bloom,
since last night’s hay and oats.
They do not know how satisfactory
they look, set loose in the April sun,
nor what handsprings are turned under
my ribs with winter gone.
~Maxine Kumin “Late Snow” from Selected Poems: 1960 – 1990

photo of spring snow by Paul Dorpat

This past weekend we had it all: sun, rain, windstorm, hail, and some local areas even reported a late April snowfall. It is indeed disorienting to have one foot still in winter and the other firmly on grass that needs mowing.

It is also disorienting to look at pandemic data and hear varying experts’ interpretations about what is happening, what they predict and what strategies are recommended.

It may be time to loosen the tight grip on social distancing yet many are reticent to emerge from their confinement, for good reason.

Just last week, we released the Haflingers from their winter lock-in back onto the fields – their winter-creaky barn-confined joints stretched as they joyfully ran the perimeter of the fields before settling their noses into fresh clover. Their ribs sprung with the fragrance of the apple blossom perfume of the orchard and it lifted my sagging spirit to see them gallop. But even the horses are not ready for complete freedom either – I whistled them in after two hours, not wanting them to eat themselves sick with too much spring grass. Their time on the outside will be tightly controlled until it is safe for them to be out unrestricted.

Surprisingly, the horses come in willingly to settle back into their stalls and their confinement routine.

I’m not so different. I long to be set loose in the April sun and the freedom to go when and where I wish. But the new reality means winter is not entirely gone yet and may not be for some time. There are still tragic and untimely losses of life, still plenty of weeping and lament from the grief-stricken who have been robbed prematurely of loved ones due to a virus that is circulating indiscriminately.

So we must ease out slowly, carefully and cautiously, with one ear cocked and ready to be whistled back in when we are called to return to safety.

The Otherness of Things

I am struck by the otherness of things rather than their same-
ness. The way a tiny pile of snow perches in the crook of a
branch in the tall pine, away by itself, high enough not to be
noticed by people, out of reach of stray dogs. It leans against
the scaly pine bark, busy at some existence that does not
need me.

It is the differences of objects that I love, that lift me toward
the rest of the universe, that amaze me. That each thing on
earth has its own soul, its own life, that each tree, each clod is
filled with the mud of its own star. I watch where I step and see
that the fallen leaf, old broken grass, an icy stone are placed in
exactly the right spot on the earth, carefully, royalty in their
own country.
~Tom Hennen “Looking for the Differences” from Darkness Sticks to Everything. 

We dwell so much on our differences rather than our similarities, especially in an intense political year like this one. There is nothing wrong with “otherness” if each other is seen as God sees us.

We each are one of His precious and specially-made creations, worthy of existence even in our muddy, rocky, fragile state.

These days, though a “snowflake” is disparaged in the political banter of the day as weak and overly sensitive, there is nothing more uniquely “other” than an individual crystalline creation falling from heaven to the exact spot where it is intended to land. Something so unique becomes part of something far greater than it could be on its own, blending in, infinitely stronger, but never lost.

I am placed here, weak as I am, in the exact right spot, for reasons I continue to uncover and discover. I try every day, as best as I can, to not get lost and, of course, to stay out of the mud.

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.

The Snow Shining

The children are sleeping
and the cows and chickens are sleeping,
and the grass itself
is sleeping.
The machines are off
and the neighbor’s lights,
a half mile away, are out,
and the moon is hanging
like a powdered face
in a darkened room,
and the snow
is shining under stars
the way we are shining here
in our cold skins
under warm quilts.

There is no season, no grass
gone brown, no cold,
and no one to say we are anything
but beautiful, swimming together
across the wide channel of night.
~David Romtvedt from “Still” in Some Church

In the evening we come down to the shore
to drink our fill, and sleep, while it
flows through the regions of the dark.
It does not hold us, except we keep returning
to its rich waters thirsty. We enter,
willing to die, into the commonwealth of its joy.

I give you what is unbounded, passing from dark to dark,
containing darkness: a night of rain, an early morning.
I give you the life I have let live for the love of you:
a clump of orange-blooming weeds beside the road,
the young orchard waiting in the snow, our own life
that we have planted in the ground, as I
have planted mine in you.
~Wendell Berry from “The Country of Marriage”

Again we find ourselves alone together ~
shining in a warmth we find in each other
planted so deeply we cannot always know
where one ends and another begins,
a commonwealth of shared everything~
the soft beauty of touch and tears:
no matter what comes next.
Mine is yours.

A Last Great Splash of Light

The sun came up chased by dogs
Across a field of snow.
As they passed the pile of broken logs
Frost fluttered in the air
Between the birch trees
Standing in that spot exactly
Where the ridge becomes a hill.

The sun goes in animal delight
Over the farthest edge of earth
Not far ahead of night
And jumps into the dark pool
With a last great splash of light.
~Tom Hennen from “Winter, Thirty Below with Sundogs” from Darkness Sticks to Everything. 

Winter reduces me to my elements:
light/dark
chilled/warm
hungry/sated
empty/filled
sleep/awake
gray/gray.

It is a holding pattern of endurance, awaiting a sun that will linger longer, arrive earlier, and actually be felt, not just apparent in the distance.

I pray for a dawn or twilight splashed with color.
Lord, any imaginable splash of color will do.

Falling Toward Each Other

We are waiting for snow
the way we might wait
for permission
to breathe again.

For only the snow
will release us, only the snow
will be a letting go, a blind falling
towards the body of earth
and towards each other.
~Linda Pastan from “Interlude”

I wish one
could press snowflakes
in a book
like flowers.
~James Schuyler from “February 13, 1975”

I wait with bated breath, wondrous at today’s snowfall, to see the landscape transformed. Each snowflake falls alone, settling in together in communal effort. And each is created as a singular masterpiece itself.

We, the created, are like each snowflake. Together we change the world, sometimes for better, too often for worse. But each of us have come from heaven uniquely designed and purposed, preciously preserved for eternity through God’s loving sacrifice.

Without Him, we melt between the pages of history.

photo by Alexay Kljatov, pbs.org
photo by Alexay Kljatov, pbs.org

How You Foretell the Weather is Changing

Rain always follows the cattle
sniffing the air and huddling
in fields with their heads to the lee.
You will know that the weather is changing
when your sheep leave the pasture
too slowly, and your dogs lie about
and look tired; when the cat
turns her back to the fire,
washing her face, and the pigs
wallow in litter; cocks will be crowing
at unusual hours, flapping their wings;
hens will chant; when your ducks
and your geese are too noisy,
and the pigeons are washing themselves;
when the peacocks squall loudly
from the tops of the trees,
when the guinea fowl grates;
when sparrows chirp loudly
and fuss in the roadway, and when swallows
fly low, skimming the earth;
when the carrion crow
croaks to himself, and wild fowl
dip and wash, and when moles
throw up hills with great fervor;
when toads creep out in numbers;
when frogs croak; when bats
enter the houses; when birds
begin to seek shelter,
and the robin approaches your house;
when the swan flies at the wind,
and your bees leave the hive;
when ants carry their eggs to and fro,
and flies bite, and the earthworm
is seen on the surface of things.

~Ted Kooser “How to Foretell a Change in the Weather” from Flying at Night: Poems 1965-1985, 

I reckon the birds and mammals and insects and worms are much better at anticipating weather change than we humans are. It is programmed into their DNA in a way that we have lost in our evolved state. Instead we are glued to our cell phone weather apps, or the Weather Channel, watching the prediction change hour to hour as if it is the gospel truth. I’m here to remind us all it is called a “prediction” for good reason.

We forget about checking the sky for the direction the clouds are traveling, or even what clouds are up there. We forget about checking our own outdoor thermometers because we don’t own them any longer. We certainly forget about barometers – a little kitchen window gadget that my father thumped with his finger every morning of my childhood, so he could see what the atmospheric pressure was doing so he could anticipate how wet or wind-blown he would be that day.

In particular, we forget to watch the critters around us – how their behavior changes and how they are preparing themselves and their environment for whatever weather change to come. They feel it in their bones and their brains by whatever means God has given them.

Our Haflinger horses are already shedding off their winter coats yet there are still six weeks left of winter. What are they trying to say about the weather to come?

So, we humans are weather-challenged creatures but all the clues still exist if only we pay attention. My weather app says the northwest will have rain rain and more rain through the weekend with a possibility of snow late Sunday. The Weather Channel website says we’ll experience high potentially damaging winds, flooding and snow. Who to believe?

I think, all things being equal, I’ll choose to believe what is predicted for Denver this weekend: all sun and a high temperature of 71 degrees. I’m sure all the critters there will be out sunbathing. Wish I could too.

Anything Rather Than Void

Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention…
            And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed one, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.
~Denise Levertov from “Primary Wonder” from Sands of the Well

Here is the mystery, the secret,
one might almost say the cunning,
of the deep love of God:
that it is bound to draw upon itself
the hatred and pain and shame
and anger and bitterness and rejection of the world,
but to draw all those things on to itself
is precisely the means chosen from all eternity
by the generous, loving God,
by which to rid his world of the evils
which have resulted from
human abuse of God-given freedom.
~N.T. Wright from The Crown and The Fire

Inundated by the constantly bad news of the world, I must cling to the mystery of His magnetism for my own weaknesses and flaws, my bitterness. He willingly pulls evil onto Himself, out of us. Hatred and pain and shame and anger disappear into the vortex of His love and beauty, the mucky corners of my heart vacuumed spotless.

We are let in on a secret: He is not sullied by absorbing the dirty messes of our lives. He is sustaining us; we are anything rather than void.

Created in His image, sustained and loved, thus reflecting Him,
we are washed forever clean.

There Are No Gradations

The whole concept of the Imago Dei (or)…the ‘Image of God’ is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected…

This gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity.
And we must never forget this…there are no gradations in the Image of God.

Every man from a treble white to a bass black
is significant on God’s keyboard,
precisely because every man is made in the Image of God.

One day we will learn that.

We will know one day that God made us to live together as brothers
and to respect the dignity and worth of every man.
– Martin Luther King, Jr. from his “The American Dream” sermon, July 4, 1965

photo by Lea Gibson

Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.
~C. S. Lewis from The Weight of Glory

photo of San Juan Islands by Joel DeWaard

We are united by our joint creation as the Image of God.  Not one of us reflects God more than another but together form His body and His kingdom on earth.

Dr. King’s words and wisdom continue to inform us of our shortcomings more than 50 years later as we flounder in our flaws and brokenness;  so many question not only the validity of equality of all people of all shades, but even doubt the existence of a God who would create a world that includes the crippled body, the troubled mind, the questioned gender, the genetically challenged, the human beings never allowed to draw a breath.

Yet we are all one, a composition made up of white and black keys too often discordant, sometimes dancing to different tempos, on rare occasions a symphony.  The potential is there for harmony, and Dr. King would see and hear that in his time on earth.

Perhaps today we unite only in our shared tears, shed for the continued strife and disagreements, shed for the injustice that results in senseless killings, shed for our inability to hold up one another as holy in God’s eyes as His intended creation, no matter our color, our origin, our defects, our differences and similarities.

We can weep together on this day, knowing, as Dr. King knew, a day will come when the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces — all colors just as they are. 

There are no longer gradations in who God is nor who He made us to be.

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.