A Fragile Citadel

…And I think
They know my strength,
Can gauge
The danger of their work:
One blow could crush them
And their nest; and I am not their friend.

And yet they seem
Too deeply and too fiercely occupied
To bother to attend.
Perhaps they sense
I’ll never deal the blow,
For, though I am not in nor of them,
Still I think I know
What it is like to live
In an alien and gigantic universe, a stranger,
Building the fragile citadels of love
On the edge of danger.
~James Rosenberg from “The Wasps’ Nest”

The nest was hanging like the richest fruit
against the sun. I took the nest

and with it came the heart, and in my hand

the kingdom and the queen, frail surfaces,
rested for a moment. Then the drones
awoke and did their painful business.

I let the city drop upon the stones.
It split to its deep palaces and combs.
The secret heart was broken suddenly.
~Michael Schmidt — “Wasps’ Nest”

Over the years, we have had basketball-sized paper bald-faced hornet nests appear in various places on the farm. They hang from eaves or branches undisturbed as their busy citizens visit our picnics, greedily buzz our compost bin, shoot bullet-like out of the garbage can when I lift the lid.  In short, their threat of using their weaponry control our moves during the summer. This year’s nest has been built to include some Golden Delicious apples in our apple tree.

This nest is the hornets’ nighttime respite for a few more weeks before a freeze renders them weak and paralyzed in slow motion.  This thing of unparalleled beauty on the outside harbors plenty of danger inside. I will not touch this fragile tissue-paper fortress with its beating buzzing hornet heart.

Let winter deal the devastating blow to disable them. 
As I am not in or of them, I cannot cast the first stone.

In a few short weeks, as the hornets sleep, the north winds will tear it free from its tight hold, bear it aloft in its lightness of being, and it will fall, crushed and broken.

Only then, its secret heart will be revealed and all that stings will be let go.

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Passing Through

Wild geese fly south, creaking like anguished hinges; along the riverbank the candles of the sumacs burn dull red.
It’s the first week of October.
Season of woolen garments taken out of mothballs;
of nocturnal mists and dew
and slippery front steps, and late-blooming slugs;
of snapdragons having one last fling;
of those frilly ornamental pink-and-purple cabbages that never used to exist, but are all over everywhere now.
~Margaret Atwood
from The Blind Assassin

But it was no good trying to tell about the beauty. It was just that life was beautiful beyond belief, and that is a kind of joy which has to be lived.

Sometimes, when they came down from the cirrus levels to catch a better wind, they would find themselves among the flocks of cumulus: huge towers of modeled vapor, looking as white as Monday’s washing and as solid as meringues. Perhaps one of these piled-up blossoms of the sky, these snow-white droppings of a gigantic Pegasus, would lie before them several miles away. They would set their course toward it, seeing it grow bigger silently and imperceptibly, a motionless growth; and then, when they were at it, when they were about to bang their noses with a shock against its seeming solid mass, the sun would dim. Wraiths of mist suddenly moving like serpents of the air would coil about them for a second. Grey damp would be around them, and the sun, a copper penny, would fade away. The wings next to their own wings would shade into vacancy, until each bird was a lonely sound in cold annihilation, a presence after uncreation. And there they would hang in chartless nothing, seemingly without speed or left or right or top or bottom, until as suddenly as ever the copper penny glowed and the serpents writhed. Then, in a moment of time, they would be in the jeweled world once more: a sea under them like turquoise and all the gorgeous palaces of heaven new created, with the dew of Eden not yet dry.
~T.H. White from The Once and Future King

Each day this first week of October, feathered travelers have slipped past us unseen and unheard.  They may stop for a drink in the pond or a bite to eat in the field and woods, but we never know they are there – they are simply passing through.

Others are compelled to announce their journey with great fanfare, usually heard before seen.  The drama of migration becomes bantering conversation from bird to bird, bird to earth, bird to sun, moon and stars, with unseen magnetic forces pointing the way.

When not using voices, their wings sing the air with rhythmic beat and whoosh, like the creaking of rusty hinges.

It reminds me how we are all together here — altogether — even when our voices are raised sharply, our silences brooding, our hurts magnified, our sorrows deep. How we spend our days becomes a matter of debate.

Our destination is not in dispute however.  We’re all heading to the same end to the human story of creation/fall/redemption, no matter how we manage to get there.

It is just that life is beautiful beyond belief, and that is a kind of joy which has to be lived.

So let’s unite our wings and voices in joy: we are just passing through, just passing through, just passing through.

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O Hushed October Morning

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
To-morrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.

O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow,
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know;
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away…

~Robert Frost “October”

These mornings I wander stunned by light and mist
to see trees tremble inside their loosening cloaks,
a pulsing palette of color ready to detach,
revealing mere bones and branches.

I want it all to be less brief,
leave the leaves attached like a fitted mosaic
rather than randomly falling away.

Their release is not their choosing:
the trees know it is time for slowly letting go~
readying for sleep, for sprouts and buds,
for fresh tapestry to be woven
from October’s leaves lying about their feet.

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Into Every Small Fold

It is not enough to offer a silent thank you,
looking down at dark mums and the garden’s final offerings
of autumn—late-planted greens, their small leaves
fragile and pale. And bright orange peppers,
the odd liveliness of their color signaling an end.
To see the dense clouds drop into its depths and know
who placed them there. It is not enough to welcome God
into every small fold of the day’s passing.
To call upon some unknown force
to let the meat be fresh, the house not burn,
the evening to find us all here again. Yet,
we are here again. And we have witnessed
the miracle of nothing. A slight turning of empty time,
bare of grief and illness and pain. We have lived
nondescript this season, this day, these sixty-minutes.
But it is not enough. To bow our heads in silence.
To close our eyes and see in each moment
of each second the uneventful wonder
of none.
~Pamela Steed Hill “The Miracle of Nothing”

Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday.
It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain.
You can feel the silent and invisible life.
~Marilynne Robinson from Gilead

I am covered with Sabbath rest
quiet and deep~
planted, grown, and now harvested in soil
still warm and dry from a too long summer,
now readying for sleep again.

I know there is nothing ordinary
in this uneventful wonder of none.

I am called by such Light
to push out against darkness,
to be witness to the miracle of nothing
and everything.

Can there be nothing more eventful
than the wonder of an ordinary Sunday?

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Keeping It For Later

When you are already here 
you appear to be only 
a name that tells of you 
whether you are present or not 
and for now it seems as though 
you are still summer 
still the high familiar 
endless summer 
yet with a glint 
of bronze in the chill mornings 
and the late yellow petals 
of the mullein fluttering 
on the stalks that lean 
over their broken 
shadows across the cracked ground 
but they all know 
that you have come 
the seed heads of the sage 
the whispering birds 
with nowhere to hide you 
to keep you for later 
you who fly with them 
you who are neither 
before nor after 
you who arrive 
with blue plums 
that have fallen through the night 
perfect in the dew
~W.S.Merwin “To the Light of September”

Each month has its own special lighting
though this past luminous September tended to sweep them all.

I loosen my grasp on September as we slip into October bronze.

There must be a place I can hide these riches,
tuck this light away for safe-keeping,
to bring it out on the darkest winter day
and feast upon it.

I do know better;
this glow follows the birds as they fly away.
They keep it with them, wherever they go,
towing it back on their wings come spring.

In the meantime I must remember how
this endless summer defined September.

Ah, What If?

What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
You dreamed
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in your hand
Ah, what then?
~Samuel Coleridge  “What if you slept”

This mountain, this strange and beautiful Shuksan flower that appears suddenly as we round a corner on the hour drive up the Mt. Baker Highway:  this mountain has one foot on earth and one foot in heaven – a thin place if there ever was one.

The only way to approach is in awed silence, as if entering the door of a grand cathedral.  Those who are there speak in hushed tones if they speak at all.

Mt. Shuksan wears autumn lightly about its shoulders as a multi-faceted cloak, barely anticipating the heavy snow coat to descend in the next few weeks.

I hold this mountain tight in my fist, wanting to turn it this way and that, breathe in its fragrance, bring it home with me and never let go.

Ah, what then?

Home is not nearly big enough for heaven to dwell.  I must content myself with this visit to the thin edge, peering through the open door, waiting until invited to come inside.

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The Heart in Exile

Down near the bottom
of the crossed-out list
of things you have to do today,

between “green thread”
and “broccoli,” you find
that you have penciled “sunlight.”

Resting on the page, the word
is beautiful. It touches you
as if you had a friend

and sunlight were a present
he had sent from someplace distant
as this morning—to cheer you up,


and to remind you that,
among your duties, pleasure
is a thing


that also needs accomplishing.
Do you remember?
that time and light are kinds

of love, and love
is no less practical
than a coffee grinder


or a safe spare tire?
Tomorrow you may be utterly
without a clue,


but today you get a telegram
from the heart in exile,
proclaiming that the kingdom


still exists,
the king and queen alive,
still speaking to their children,

—to any one among them
who can find the time
to sit out in the sun and listen.

~Tony Hoagland “The Word” from Sweet Ruin

When I moved from Washington state to California for college, daily sunshine was a new experience for me, having grown up in the cloudy Pacific Northwest. At first I was nearly giddy with the new reality of not having to wear jackets with hoods or (horrors!) carry an umbrella. It was like being let out of gray prison into the land of puppies and rainbows – like the old Wizard of Oz B&W film becoming technicolor when Dorothy’s house lands in Oz and she opens the door to her new home.

But then I realized strings of sunny days were doing something to my head. Previously, I was dependent on rainy days to stay inside and hit the books, curled up in a quiet corner, content to be cerebral rather than exercising the rest of my muscles. If there was a sunny day in Washington, then I was compelled outside to enjoy what few hours were offered up by the skies. Real gray life happened the rest of the time when I could buckle down and get some work done.

So college days started out euphoric and ended up depressing – I tried studying in dark carrels in the library but I still knew there was sunshine going to waste. I tried studying outside on the college lawn but the distraction of all the activity around me was too great. I finally learned to apportion my “out-in-the-sun” hours from my study hours so I wasn’t feeling robbed of either. I decided to take a sun bath like I take a water bath – just enough to feel transformed and cleansed.

I owned a rainy heart in exile so moving back to the northwest after college was easy; I longed for strings of cloudy days so I could be productive guilt-free again. To this day, I only dose myself with sunbeams in moderation as if I was still worried there won’t be enough sun to last another day.

But there is, there always is.

You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.

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Trying to Yield to Change

I went out to cut a last batch of zinnias this
morning from the back fencerow and got my shanks
chilled for sure: furrowy dark gray clouds with
separating fringes of blue sky-grass: and the dew

beaded up heavier than the left-overs of the rain:
in the zinnias, in each of two, a bumblebee
stirring in slow motion. Trying to unwind
the webbed drug of cold, buzzing occasionally but

with a dry rattle: bees die with the burnt honey
at their mouths, at least: the fact’s established:
it is not summer now and the simmering buzz is out of
heat: the zucchini blossoms falling show squash

overgreen with stunted growth: the snapdragons have
suckered down into a blossom or so: we passed
into dark last week the even mark of day and night
and what we hoped would stay we yield to change.
~A.R. Ammons  “Equinox” from Complete Poems

I yield now
to the heaviness of transition
from summer to autumn,
with slowing of my walk
and darkening of my days.

It is time;
day and night now compete for my attention
and both will win.

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Wrapped in the Shawl of Fading Summer

Summer begins to have the look
Peruser of enchanting Book
Reluctantly but sure perceives
A gain upon the backward leaves —

Autumn begins to be inferred
By millinery of the cloud,
Or deeper color in the shawl
That wraps the everlasting hill.
~Emily Dickinson in “Summer Begins to Have the Look”

Summer is waning and wistful;
it has the look of packing up,
and moving on
without bidding adieu
or looking back over its shoulder.

I’m just not ready to wave goodbye to sun-soaked clear skies.

Cooling winds have carried in darkening clouds
spread green leaves everywhere,
loosened before their time.
Rain is many weeks overdue
yet there is temptation to bargain
for a little more time.
Though we are in need of a good drenching
there are still onions and potatoes to pull from the ground,
berries to pick before they mold on the vine,
overwhelming buckets of tomatoes,
and the remaining corn cobs bulging.

The overhead overcast is heavily burdened
with clues of what is coming:
earlier dusk,
the feel of moisture,
the deepening graying hues,
the briskness of breezes.

There is no negotiation possible.
I need to steel myself and get ready,
wrapping myself in the soft shawl of inevitability.

So autumn advances with the clouds,
taking up residence where summer has left off.
Though there is still clean up
of the overabundance left behind,
autumn will bring its own unique plans
for display of a delicious palette of hues.

The truth is we’ve seen nothing yet.

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Heartbroken By Blight

In your extended absence, you permit me
use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment. I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.
I think I should not be encouraged to grow
tomatoes. Or, if I am, you should withhold
the heavy rains, the cold nights that come
so often here, while other regions get
twelve weeks of summer. All this
belongs to you: on the other hand,
I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots
like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart
broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly
multiplying in the rows. I doubt
you have a heart, in our understanding of
that term. You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence,
immune to foreshadowing, you may not know
how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
even in August, in early darkness:

I am responsible for these vines.
~Louise Glück “Vespers”

As the calendar turns to September and August fades away, I know all too well what this means. I have spent a lifetime loving the season of autumn best of all, but that is because I wasn’t living it, and, of course, it seems now I am in its midst.

More and more the blight feels personal, the color change is in the mirror looking back at me, the leaves falling from my own scalp, the threat of rot setting in quite real. Growing older is hardly “pumpkin spice” and “harvest gold” in reality.

Even so, the fruit I still bear is edible even if not as presentable; the vine where I grow still bears useful life. A first frost forces ripening and prepares what remains because time is short and there is so much yet to get done.

So who am I anyway?

I feel the responsibility of making all this effort count for something. I am here because I was planted, weeded, nurtured, watered and warmed. The rot will thankfully be forgotten, so remaining sweet to the taste, just as I am meant to be.

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