Breaking Through Ice

Walking in February
A warm day after a long freeze
On an old logging road
Below Sumas Mountain
Cut a walking stick of alder,
Looked down through clouds
On wet fields of the Nooksack—
And stepped on the ice
Of a frozen pool across the road.
It creaked
The white air under
Sprang away, long cracks
Shot out in the black,
My cleated mountain boots
Slipped on the hard slick
—like thin ice—the sudden
Feel of an old phrase made real—
Instant of frozen leaf,
Icewater, and staff in hand.
“Like walking on thin ice—”
I yelled back to a friend,
It broke and I dropped
Eight inches in
~Gary Snyder “Thin Ice”

We have witnessed an unprecedented year of spreading infection. Not only have we been outwitted by a wily virus that mutates as needed to further its domination of its hosts and the world, but we stand on a frozen lake pandemic of daily discouragement and ice-cracking political division, not sure where we may safely take our next step.

Viruses depend on us harboring them without us dying promptly so we might infect as many others as possible as quickly as possible. The better we feel while contagious, the better it is for the virus to wreak potential havoc on those around us.

A mask on you and a mask on me helps to block my virus from entering your (as yet) uninfected nose. Similarly, we can both don “masks” to impede the intentional spread of our insistence that one of us is right and the other is wrong. If we don’t attempt to muzzle our disagreements, we’re creating cracks in the tenuous ice beneath our feet.

The trouble with overheated debates in the middle of winter is that we all end up walking on too-thin ice, breaking through and doused by the chilly waters below.

Lord, have mercy on us,
help us see and hear the cracks forming beneath our feet.
Put us on our knees before you, you alone,
humble and aware
of the contagious cracks we perpetuate.

Watching the Weather

When it snows, he stands
at the back door or wanders
around the house to each
window in turn and
watches the weather
like a lover.

O farm boy,
I waited years
for you to look at me
that way. Now we’re old
enough to stop waiting
for random looks or touches
or words, so I find myself
watching you watching
the weather, and we wait
together to discover
whatever the sky might bring.
~Patricia Traxler “Weather Man”

My farm boy always looked at me that way,
and still does —
wondering if today will bring
a hard frost,
a chilly northeaster,
a scorcher,
or a deluge,
and I reassure him as best I can,
because he knows me so well
in our many years together:
today, like every other day,
will always be partly sunny
with some inevitable cloud cover
and always a possibility of rain.

The Slanted Light

There’s a certain Slant of light
On winter afternoons —
That oppresses, like the Heft
of cathedral tunes.
When it comes, the Landscape listens —
Shadows hold their breath —
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death.
~Emily Dickinson

How valuable it is in these short days,
threading through empty maple branches,
the lacy-needled sugar pines.

 
Its glint off sheets of ice tells the story
of Death’s brightness, her bitter cold.

 
We can make do with so little, just the hint
of warmth, the slanted light.
..
~Molly Fisk, “Winter Sun” from 
The More Difficult Beauty

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
~Emily Dickinson

I like the slants of light; I’m a collector.
That’s a good one, I say…
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

During our northwest winters, there is usually so little sunlight on gray cloudy days that I routinely turn on the two light bulbs in the big hay barn any time I need to fetch hay bales for the horses. This is so I avoid falling into the holes that inevitably develop in the hay stack between bales. Winter murky lighting tends to hide the dark shadows of the leg-swallowing pits among the bales, something that is particularly hazardous when carrying a 60 pound hay bale.

Yesterday when I went to grab hay bales for the horses at sunset, before I flipped the light switch, I could see light already blazing in the big barn. The last of the day’s sun rays were at a precise winter slant, streaming through the barn slat openings, ricocheting off the roof timbers onto the bales, casting an almost fiery glow onto the hay. The barn was ignited and ablaze without fire and smoke — the last things one would even want in a hay barn.

I scrambled among the bales without worry.

In my life outside the barn I’ve been falling into more than my share of dark holes lately. Even when I know where they lie and how deep they are, some days I will manage to step right in anyway. Each time it knocks the breath out of me, makes me cry out, makes me want to quit trying to lift the heavy loads. It leaves me fearful to venture where the footing is uncertain.

Then, on the darkest of days, light comes from the most unexpected of places, blazing a trail to help me see where to step, what to avoid, how to navigate the hazards to avoid collapsing on my face. I’m redirected, inspired anew, granted grace, gratefully calmed and comforted amid my fears. Even though the light fades, and the darkness descends again, it is only until tomorrow. Then it reignites again.

The Light returns and so will I.

Think of the Frost

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.

The Edge of Morning

Horse Team by Edvard Munch
The glittering roofs are still with frost; each worn
Black chimney builds into the quiet sky
Its curling pile to crumble silently.
Far out to the westward on the edge of morn,
The slender misty city towers up-borne
Glimmer faint rose against the pallid blue;
And yonder on those northern hills, the hue
Of amethyst, hang fleeces dull as horn.

And here behind me come the woodmen’s sleighs
With shouts and clamorous squeakings; might and main
Up the steep slope the horses stamp and strain,
Urged on by hoarse-tongued drivers–cheeks ablaze,
Iced beards and frozen eyelids–team by team,
With frost-fringed flanks, and nostrils jetting steam.

~Archibald Lampman “A January Morning”
photo by Josh Scholten

The vast majority of the world no longer depends on horse power on hooves to bring us the things we need to live every day.

Few of us depend on wood heat in our homes during these chilly January nights. Chimneys have become obsolete or merely decorative.

We live in a farm house that depended solely on wood heat to keep its original family warm through decades of brisk Pacific Northwest winters – in our remodel twenty plus years ago, we removed two wood stoves and installed a propane furnace and gas stove instead – now dependent on fossil fuels but trying to keep the air clean around us.

We also no longer have to wait, as our parents and grandparents did, on teamsters with frosted beards urging on their teams of steaming horses – pulling sleighs and wagons loaded with firewood or other goods. Now, sleek semis back up to the ramps of grocery stores and off-load their cargo into warehouse and freezers so night stockers can ensure the shelves are full for shoppers each morning.

For most of us living in a time of modern and immediate conveniences, we have little connection to the original source of the daily supplies we need and how they get to us. As descendants of subsistence farmers, my husband and I feel a relationship to the land we live on, fortunate to be able to store much of our garden and orchard produce right here in our pantry, root cellar and freezer.

And what of the horses who were so critical to the economy up until a century ago? Their role has been reduced to recreation and novelty rather than providing the essential horse power that supplied the goods we needed to live and moved us where we needed to go.

No fossil fuel necessary back then.
No exhaust other than steaming nostrils
and a pile of manure here or there.

We are the aging bridge generation between the end of horse power on hooves giving way to universal horse power on wheels. I remind myself of this each day as I do the chores in the barn. I’m a fortunate farmer, working alongside these animals on the edge of a frosty morning, knowing few people will remember how essential they were or have the privilege to continue to care for them as they deserve.

Losing Foliage

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.

An Austere Love

Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices? 
–  Robert HaydenThose Winter Sundays

As a child growing up,
I was oblivious
to the sacrifices my parents made
to keep the house warm,
place food on the table,
to teach us the importance of faith and belief,
to crack the door of opportunity open,
so we could walk through
to a better life.

It was no small offering
to keep dry seasoned fire and stove wood always at the doorstep,
to milk the cows twice a day,
to grow and preserve fruits and vegetables months in advance,
to raise and butcher meat animals,
to read books together every night,
to sit with us over homework
and drive us to 4H, Cub Scouts and Camp Fire,
to music lessons and sports,
to sit together, never missing a Sunday morning,
to worship God.

This was their love,
so often invisible,
too often imperfect,
even when they were angry with one another–
yet its encompassing warmth
splintered and broke
the grip of cold and loneliness
that too often
overwhelms and freezes
a child’s heart and soul.

What did I know?
Too little then,
maybe a little more now.

A January Partly Cloudy

Today is one of those
excellent January partly cloudies
in which light chooses
an unexpected part of the landscape
to trick out in gilt,
and then the shadow sweeps it away.

You know you’re alive.
You take huge steps,
trying to feel the planet’s roundness arc between your feet.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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 January days
when I am surrounded
by mist and fog and partly cloudies-
a brief gift of blue sky
and gilt light.

God is felt on days like this,
neither seen or heard,
His stilling presence
overtaking me
with each breath I draw,
following the path of each glistening tear,
becoming the arcing ground
reaching to meet my foot
with each bold step I take.

Pleading To Be Let Out

Though the barn is so warm
that the oats in his manger,
the straw in his bed
seem to give off smoke—

though the wind is so cold,
the snow in the pasture
so deep he’d fall down
and freeze in an hour—

the eleven-month-old
palomino stallion
has gone almost crazy
fighting and pleading
to be let out.
~Alden Nowlan “The Palomino Stallion” from Selected Poems.

photo by Emily Vander Haak

Inside the barn the sheep were standing, pushed close to one
another. Some were dozing, some had eyes wide open listening
in the dark. Some had no doubt heard of wolves. They looked
weary with all the burdens they had to carry, like being thought
of as stupid and cowardly, disliked by cowboys for the way they
eat grass about an inch into the dirt, the silly look they have
just after shearing, of being one of the symbols of the Christian
religion. In the darkness of the barn their woolly backs were
full of light gathered on summer pastures. Above them their
white breath was suspended, while far off in the pine woods,
night was deep in silence. The owl and rabbit were wondering,
along with the trees, if the air would soon fill with snowflakes,
but the power that moves through the world and makes our
hair stand on end was keeping the answer to itself.
~Tom Hennen “Sheep in the Winter Night” from Darkness Sticks to Everything. 

We all feel pretty locked in right now – not able to go where we want, when we want, or how we want. We are kicking at the walls and pummeling each other in our frustration at the limitations imposed by a blizzard of virus swirling outside, swallowing up another person every couple minutes.

It is hard to think of quarantine as a necessary time of security and safety. Even our horses are confined to their barn stalls in the worst of winter weather with all the comforts of home provided to them, yet somehow they believe it is better “out there” than inside. However, once they are “out there,” they take one look around and turn back to come in where there isn’t knee deep mud or bitter northeast winds or pounding drenching rain. It isn’t a bit friendly out there.

In this part of the world, we can continue to have harsh winter weather for another month or so and then we can start allowing our critters more freedom. There is no chance the viral storm will settle that soon so the rest of us will hunker down for a while longer.

I’ll try not to bite if you promise not to kick.

The Thirsty One

God has a use for you.

I am the vessel.
The draught is God’s.

And God is the thirsty one.
Not I.  But God in me.

Do not seek death.
Death will find you.
But seek the road which makes death a fulfillment.

The road, You shall follow it.
The cup, You shall empty it.
The pain, You shall conceal it.
The truth, You shall be told it.

The end, You shall endure it.
~Dag Hammarskjöld in writings from his 1953 journal

Today,
after the wind storm of yesterday,
when rain fell in unrelenting
torrents from heaven,
we are caught in a rising current so swift
we must cling fast
or be swept away.

Drenched
beyond capacity to absorb any more,
we are ready, Lord,
to empty ourselves into
your thirstiness
so we are useful for your purposes.