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.

He Sees Us As We Are: Shut to Mystery

What is the crying at Jordan?
Who hears, O God, the prophecy?
Dark is the season, dark
our hearts and shut to mystery.

Who then shall stir in this darkness
prepare for joy in the winter night?
Mortal in darkness we
lie down, blind-hearted, seeing no light.

Lord, give us grace to awake us,
to see the branch that begins to bloom;
in great humility
is hid all heaven in a little room.

Now comes the day of salvation,
in joy and terror the Word is born!
God gives himself into our lives;
Oh, let salvation dawn!
~Carol Christopher Drake

We, His people, move from joy at the wooden manger to despair at the wooden cross; God sees us as we stumble along, blind-hearted.

We are bound up tight as a bud reluctant to bloom.

He gives Himself to us;
He brings joy to our miserable and dark existence;
He dies for us;
He rises to give us eternal hope of salvation;
He calls us by name so we’ll open up and recognize Him.

This mystery is too much for those unwilling to accept that such sacrifice is possible. We are blind to the possibility that His Spirit cannot be measured, touched, weighed or tracked, yet has the power to stir and overwhelm darkness.  We prefer the safety of remaining tight as an unopened bud, hid in the little room of our hearts rather than risk the transition to full blossom and fruitfulness.

Yet God sees us as we are: budding potential.

Lord, give us grace in our blindness, having given us Yourself. 
Prepare us for embracing your mystery. 
Prepare us for joy.
Prepare us to bloom.

This year’s Lenten theme on Barnstorming:

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller

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.

An Opened Palm of Offering

These woods
on the edges of a lake
are settling now
to winter darkness.
Whatever was going to die
is gone —
crickets, ferns, swampgrass.
Bare earth fills long spaces of a field.
But look:
a single oak leaf
brown and shining
like a leather purse.
See what it so delicately offers
lying upturned on the path.
See how it reflects in its opened palm
a cup of deep, unending sky.
~ Laura Foley, “The Offering” from Why I Never Finished My Dissertation

Winter still has us in its chilly grasp for another four weeks. We feel caught up in its wintry web as viruses continue to swirl among us despite efforts to monitor and quarantine, and we wonder when our own turn will come.

The natural world, its joys and its threats, has always had the upper hand. We are dumbfounded, never quick enough to catch on to its tricks and sly mutations, unprepared to respond in the moment.

Like a withering leaf soon to become dust, we offer up what we can when we can: our reflection of the light, our hope of better things to come, our gift of beauty back to a despairing world.

Winter never has the last word.

Let Me Go to the Window

…leave me a little love,
A voice to speak to me in the day end,
A hand to touch me in the dark room
Breaking the long loneliness.
In the dusk of day-shapes
Blurring the sunset,
One little wandering, western star
Thrust out from the changing shores of shadow.
Let me go to the window,
Watch there the day-shapes of dusk
And wait and know the coming
Of a little love.
~Carl Sandburg from “At a Window”

Now close the windows and hush all the fields;
If the trees must, let them silently toss;
No bird is singing now, and if there is,
Be it my loss.

I will be long ere the marshes resume,
It will be long ere the earliest bird:
So close the windows and not hear the wind,
But see all wind-stirred.
~Robert Frost “Now Close the Windows”

Everything looks a little different framed by a window. We are set apart, looking out, rather than immersed within the landscape ourselves.

It is not unlike being in an art museum, walking past masterpieces that offer a framed view into another time and place, with people we don’t know and will never meet.

Let me go to the windows, moving through the house and peering out at the glory that awaits beyond the frame. But rather than simply admire the view, protected from the chill wind, I’ll walk out the door into the life that pulses continually beyond the glass.

Waiting for News of Spring

It’s a motley lot. A few still stand
at attention like sentries at the ends
of their driveways, but more lean
askance as if they’d just received a blow
to the head, and in fact they’ve received
many, all winter, from jets of wet snow
shooting off the curved, tapered blade
of the plow. Some look wobbly, cocked
at oddball angles or slumping forlornly
on precariously listing posts. One box
bows steeply forward, as if in disgrace, its door
lolling sideways, unhinged. Others are dented,
battered, streaked with rust, bandaged in duct tape,
crisscrossed with clothesline or bungee cords.
A few lie abashed in remnants of the very snow
that knocked them from their perches.
Another is wedged in the crook of a tree
like a birdhouse, its post shattered nearby.
I almost feel sorry for them, worn out
by the long winter, off-kilter, not knowing
what hit them, trying to hold themselves
together, as they wait for news from spring.
~Jeffrey Harrison “Mailboxes in Late Winter”

This time of year I too often feel like an off-kilter mailbox – rusty, dented, leaning rather than upright, covered with mildew and lichens — it will take some effort to look presentable after a long winter.

There isn’t much that would recommend me as a potential destination; most of the mail that is delivered to me is junk mail or bills. It is a rare pleasure to find a hand-addressed card or note. I have myself to thank for that: I rarely send one to anyone else. I’m not even sure I could find a stamp at home if I wanted one.

It reminds me how infrequently I actually hand write any form of communication any more, how dependent I’ve become on the instantaneous nature of texting and email, and how much I used to enjoy writing letters back and forth to family and friends, in what feels like another life.

Letters can be forever–a tangible representation of the writer illustrated by their choice of envelope, stamp and paper, writing utensil, style of script, sometimes a scent. The neatness or hurried nature of the writing says something about the urgency with which it was written. Emails have none of those features, and can feel ephemeral, although we know they can always be found and retrieved, for good and for ill, by those who know how to look for them.

It has been too long. It’s time to commit to writing a letter a week to someone who needs to be able to tangibly feel my caring about them, right in their hands.

Then just maybe, I can share news of the spring to come.

Rise Up in Weediness

Like animals moving daily
through the same open field,
it should be easier to distinguish
light from dark, fabrications

from memory, rain on a sliver
of grass from dew appearing
overnight. In these moments
of desperation, a sentence

serves as a halo, the moon
hidden so the stars eclipse
our daily becoming. You think
it should be easier to define

one’s path, but with the clouds
gathering around our feet,
there’s no sense in retracing
where we’ve been or where

your tired body will carry you.
Eventually the birds become
confused and inevitable. Even our
infinite knowledge of the forecast

might make us more vulnerable
than we would be in drawn-out
ignorance. To the sun
all weeds eventually rise up.

~Adam Clay “Our Daily Becoming”

I can choose to fight the inevitable march of time with sighs and sorrows,
thus arm myself with regret for what is no more,

or pull myself through light to dark each day with soul-sucking fatigue, uncertain if I have what it takes to power through,

or I can flow passively for as long as I can stay afloat, apart and remote,
barely aware of the passage of all around me,

or I can smile at awakening each morning, no matter what is forecast,
reaching up to the sun I know is there, though hidden behind mist, fog and clouds,

grateful I’m given another day to work to get it right:
my opportunity to be fruitful, despite my weediness.