Muddied But Whole

The crow’s voice filtered through the walls of the farmhouse
makes sounds of a rusty car engine turning over. Clouds on a
north wind that whistles softly and cold. Spruce trees planted
in a line on the south side of the house weave and scrape at the
air. I’ve walked to a far field to a fence line of rocks where I am
surprised to see soft mud this raw day. No new tracks in the
mud, only desiccated grass among the rocks, a bare grove of
trees in the distance, a blue sky thin as an eggshell with a crack
of dark geese running through it, their voices faint and almost
troubled as they disappear in a wedge that has opened at last
the cold heart of winter.

~Tom Hennen, “Early Spring in the Field” from Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems

I shouldn’t be turning on the heat in the house on a late May morning but there is still an undeniable chill, even at this point in spring. The flowers outside are lush, but we’re still two or three weeks behind our usual bloom schedule.

We’re all impatient to be done with the coldness of a winter that has driven a wedge between people and politics, families and friends, well and ill.

We seek warmth and renewal and hugs and handshakes.

Instead we are asked for patience, to continue to practice the art of waiting for a safe reentry to spring and summer. No one wants to be tossed brutally back to the winter we just crawled away from.

May we emerge together, muddied but whole, ready to face whatever comes next.

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.

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.

Savoring a Bad Mood

I like these cold, gray winter days.
Days like these let you savor a bad mood. 
~Bill Watterson
from “Calvin and Hobbes”

The wind is keen coming over the ice;
it carries the sound of breaking glass.
And the sun, bright but not warm,
has gone behind the hill. Chill, or the fear
of chill, sends me hurrying home.
~Jane Kenyon from “Walking Alone in Late Winter”

Roused by faint glow at midnight
peering between slats
of window blinds
closed tight to a chill wind-

Bedroom becomes suffused
in ethereal light
from a moonless sky~
a million stars fall silent as

Snow light covers all,
settling gently while
tucking the downy corners
of the snowflake comforter

of heaven, plumping the pillows,
cushioning the landscape,
lightening and illuminating
a fearfully chilled and grumpy heart.

A Fire in the Stove

After three weeks of hot weather and drought,
           we’ve had a week of cold and rain,
just the way it ought to be here in the north,
            in June, a fire going in the woodstove
all day long, so you can go outside in the cold
            and rain anytime and smell
the wood smoke in the air.

This is the way I love it. This is why
           I came here almost
fifty years ago. What is June anyway
          without cold and rain
and a fire going in the stove all day?
~David Budbill – “What is June Anyway?”

It has been a dry hot June here in Washington up until early this morning before dawn. I woke to the somewhat unfamiliar sound of dripping, a rain so subtle it was trying to sneak in under the cover of darkness without anyone noticing it had been missing for weeks.

I turned on the fire in the gas stove to take the morning chill out of this last day of spring, reminding myself just a week ago I had fans going in the house 24 hours a day.

Brisk rainy days in June may not be the choice of berry growers, brides or baseball fans, but I’m drinking it up. This is predicted to be another smoky summer due to widespread Canadian forest fires, so smelling wood smoke in the air is not at all comforting.

Despite the inconvenience to summer outdoor plans and harvesting, may the rains continue while the fields green up and the rivers and streams replenish, and may the air smell sweet with moisture.

It’s almost summer and the living is easy when we wake up to the sound of dripping.

Cold Grows Colder

The cold grows colder, even as the days 
grow longer, February’s mercury vapor light 
buffing but not defrosting the bone-white 
ground, crusty and treacherous underfoot. 
This is the time of year that’s apt to put 
a hammerlock on a healthy appetite, 
old anxieties back into the night, 
insomnia and nightmares into play; 
when things in need of doing go undone 
and things that can’t be undone come to call, 
muttering recriminations at the door, 
and buried ambitions rise up through the floor 
and pin your wriggling shoulders to the wall; 
and hope’s a reptile waiting for the sun.
~Bill Christopherson
“February”

Just when you think it is safe to go out in shirt sleeves and sweats, subzero wind chill blasts through your bravado and reminds you February is still WINTER on the calendar and in reality.

February can be a month of regret and recriminations, of “should-haves” and “should-not-haves” while waiting, frozen and immobile, for spring to bring us back to life. Like cold-blooded creatures, we need the sun to warm us up so we can move again. This sun today, bright as it is, only lights up our flaws and holes – no warmth whatsoever.

And it’s not just me struggling to stay upright in the storm. Our old red barn, waiting for its spring date with a talented rehab carpenter, hasn’t many roof shingles left after this latest blow, and a recent partial wall collapse in the wind prompted a neighbor to ask if we had meant to create a new door into our barn.

Uh, no.

The old barn is kind of like how I feel at times: lacking a decent foundation, a bit shaky on my underpinnings, a lot sagging in the middle, broad in the beam and drafty where I shouldn’t be.

So much to be shored up, fixed, patched and restored. So much need for a talented Carpenter who knows how to mend and strengthen the broken and fallen.

The Way the Wind Blows

Snow is falling today and more wind is forecast tomorrow.

It is a cold wind, whether coming from the north, chilling our bones as various weather fronts meet and clash overhead and we feel dumped on.

Another cold wind of reality is blowing through America right now as well, and not just on our farm.

There is considerable turmoil as Americans struggle with the increased need to “pay as you go” rather than “borrow for what you desire”.  The debt load for young adults is climbing, especially student loans and mortgages. Fewer older people have any significant savings for retirement.

Our parents were Great-Depression era children, so my husband and I heard plenty of stories convincing us never to reach beyond our means.  My grandmother moved her three young children 20 miles away from home in order to cook morning, noon and night in a large boarding house, grateful for the work that allowed her to feed her family. It also meant separation from their jobless, depressed and often intoxicated father for weeks at a time.  She told stories of making sandwiches to feed hobos who knocked on the kitchen door, hoping for a hand out, and after sitting briefly on the back steps eating what she could offer from left over scraps, they would be on their way again, walking on down the muddy road, hoping somewhere farther along there may be another handout or perhaps a day’s work.   Even in her time of trouble, my grandmother could find blessing in the fact she and her children had a roof over their heads, beds to sleep in (all in one room) and food to fill their stomachs.  There were always people worse off and she wasn’t one of them.

My grandmother never lived comfortably, by her own choice, after that experience.  She could never trust that tomorrow things would be as plentiful as today, so she rarely rested, never borrowed, always saved even the tiniest scrap of food, of cloth, of wood, as it could always prove useful someday.   My father learned from those uncertain days of his childhood and never borrowed to buy a car or a piece of furniture or an appliance.   It had to be cash, or it was simply not his to purchase, so he never coveted what he did not have money to buy outright.

So we, the next generation, were raised that way.  Even so, borrowing began with loans for college but still working three jobs while maintaining good grades.  But then there was borrowing for that first care and to buy a house. 

But with grandma’s and dad’s stories fresh in our minds, we knew we couldn’t start that slippery slope of borrowing to take vacations or buy  the latest and greatest stuff or build the bigger house.   So we didn’t.

We have lived simply, driving our vehicles past 200,000 miles, continuing to harvest and preserve from the garden, using our appliances past the 25 year mark. And we’ve been content and happy.

Happiness isn’t stuff.  It isn’t big houses.  It isn’t brand new cars or the latest gadgets.

It’s being under the same roof as a family, striving together and loving each other.  It is taking care of friends when they need help.  It is reaching out to the stranger in our midst who has less than we have.

The wind is pointing us back to the values we had long forgotten as we got much too comfortable.   It takes a storm to find that true contentment can rest only within our hearts.

An Advent Paradox: In From Out

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Down he came from up,
and in from out,
and here from there.
A long leap,
an incandescent fall
from magnificent
to naked, frail, small,
through space,
between stars,
into our chill night air,
shrunk, in infant grace,
to our damp, cramped
earthy place
among all
the shivering sheep.

And now, after all,
there he lies,
fast asleep.
~Luci Shaw “Descent” from Accompanied By Angels

 

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The Lord brings death and makes alive;
    he brings down to the grave and raises up.
~1 Samuel 2: 6 from the Song of Hannah

 

 

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Hannah’s prayer describes the Lord in all His paradox of reversals:
the strong are broken
those who stumble strengthened,
the satisfied end up working for food
the hungry become filled,
the barren woman bears children
the mother of many pines away,
the poor and needy are lifted up to sit with princes.

He humbles and exalts–we have read the stories of how the Lord uses such reversals to instruct and inspire His people.

Yet nothing Hannah says is as radical and unprecedented as being brought down to the grave and then raised up, the Lord causing death and making alive.   This makes no sense.  Once in the grave, there is no escape.  Death cannot be reversed like the weak becoming strong, the hungry filled, the barren fertile, the poor enriched.

Hannah sings that this will indeed happen, just as the other reversals happened.  It would take centuries, but her prayer is fulfilled in the child born to Mary, who lives and dies and lives again in the greatest reversal of all.

There can be no greater mystery than a God who chooses to walk the earth as a man among the poor, the needy, the helpless, the sick, the blind, the lame, the wicked, the barren, the hungry, the weak.

There can be no greater reversal than God Himself dying–put away down into the grave– and then rising up, glorious, in the ultimate defeat of darkness and death.

Hannah already knew this as a barren woman made full through the blessing of the Lord, choosing to empty herself by giving her son back to God.

Mary knew this as a virgin overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, choosing to empty herself by bearing, raising and giving her Son back to the Father.

The angels knew this, welcoming the Son of God to a throne in a manger as He is born to bring light to the darkness, and peace to a torn and ruptured world.

We know this too.   We are the weak, the hungry, the poor, the dying filled completely through the love and sacrifice of the Triune God, and so give ourselves up to Him.

In from out, from down to up.  It can be done.  And He has done it.

 

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Have you heard the sound of the angel voices
ringing out so sweetly, ringing out so clear?
Have you seen the star shining out so brightly
as a sign from God that Christ the Lord is here?

Have you heard the news that they bring from heaven
to the humble shepherds who have waited long?
Gloria in excelsis Deo! Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Hear the angels sing their joyful song.

He is come in peace in the winter’s stillness,
like a gentle snowfall in the gentle night.
He is come in joy, like the sun at morning,
filling all the world with radiance and with light.

He is come in love as the child of Mary.
In a simple stable we have seen his birth.
Gloria in excelsis Deo! Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Hear the angels singing ‘Peace on earth’.

He will bring new light to a world in darkness,
like a bright star shining in the skies above.
He will bring new hope to the waiting nations,
when he comes to reign in purity and love.

Let the earth rejoice at the Saviour’s coming.
Let the heavens answer with a joyful morn:
Gloria in excelsis Deo! Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Hear the angels singing, ‘christ is born’
Hear the angels singing, ‘christ is born’
~John Rutter “Angels’ Carol”

 

These Tattered and Tumbling Skies

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The rain and the wind, the wind and the rain —
They are with us like a disease:
They worry the heart,
they work the brain,
As they shoulder and clutch at the shrieking pane,
And savage the helpless trees.
What does it profit a man to know
These tattered and tumbling skies
A million stately stars will show,
And the ruining grace of the after-glow
And the rush of the wild sunrise?
~William Ernest Henley from “The Rain and the Wind”
 
 
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Yesterday started with a calm and steady rain
making even more sodden a sullen gray dawn–
then unbidden, a sudden chilly gust from the northeast
ripped loose remaining leaves
and sent them spinning,
swirling earthbound
in yellow clouds.

The battering of rain and wind
followed by an early snowfall
leaves no doubt
summer is done for good —
the past is past.

I hunker through the turbulence
to await a clear night when once again
heaven empties itself out
into a fragile crystalline dawn.

 

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Fall’s Warm Milk of Light

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portrait of Dan’s mom, Emma Gibson, praying, by granddaughter Sara Lenssen

 

I sit with braided fingers   
and closed eyes
in a span of late sunlight.   
The spokes are closing.
It is fall: warm milk of light,   
though from an aging breast.   
I do not mean to pray.   
The posture for thanks or   
supplication is the same   
as for weariness or relief.   
But I am glad for the luck   
of light. Surely it is godly,   
that it makes all things
begin, and appear, and become   
actual to each other.
Light that’s sucked into   
the eye, warming the brain   
with wires of color.
Light that hatched life
out of the cold egg of earth.
~May Swenson from “October”
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I know all too well that the end of October means the light changes, the colors fade, and the chill sets in.  I grasp and bundle up what scenes I can preserve now, like harvesting hay to be tied up in bales and stored safely until the middle of winter.  Then, at the right time, when I’m most hungry for color and light,  I loosen the strings and let the images tumble out, feeding me like mother’s milk.
And I am filled…
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