A Stranger to Nothing

Contorted by wind,
mere armatures for ice or snow,
the trees resolve
to endure for now,

they will leaf out in April.
And I must be as patient
as the trees—
a winter resolution

I break all over again,
as the cold presses
its sharp blade
against my throat.

~Linda Pastan “January” from The Months

A year has come to us as though out of hiding
It has arrived from an unknown distance
From beyond the visions of the old
Everyone waited for it by the wrong roads
And it is hard for us now to be sure it is here
A stranger to nothing
In our hiding places
~W. S. Merwin “Early January” from  The Lice 

January can be a rough month for most of us: the beginning-of-winter doldrums can be fierce after the hubbub of holidays. It doesn’t help the new year I hoped for is nothing like the unfamiliar road I find myself following – full of twists and turns and switchbacks, as well as being stalled at times, iced firmly in place, a stranger to myself.

So resolutions have been set aside, travel plans postponed, priorities changed; what I need most is the patience to endure, trusting things do change over time, like the seasons.

Winter will not last forever.
I will, like the bare trees around me, leaf out again.

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Ice Would Suffice

I don’t know why it made me happy
to see the pond ice over in a day,
turning first hazy, then white.
Or why I was glad when the thermometre
read twenty-four below, and I came back to bed – the pillows cold,
as if I had not been there two minutes before.
~Jane Kenyon “The Cold”

Then they also will answer, saying,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?

Matthew 25:44

bluejay photo by Josh Scholten



A jay settled on a branch, making it sway.
The one shriveled fruit that remained
gave way to the deepening drift below.
I happened to see it the moment it fell.
.
Dusk is eager and comes early. A car
creeps over the hill. Still in the dark I try
to tell if I am numbered with the damned,
who cry, outraged, Lord, when did we see You?
~Jane Kenyon “Apple Dropping Into Deep Early Snow”

I have reservoirs of want enough   
to freeze many nights over.
~Conor O’Callaghan from “January Drought”

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

~Robert Frost “Fire and Ice”

How sad to think we have a choice of destruction –
between the ashes of a cataclysmic fire
or the frozen immobility of a block of ice
with breath trapped in bubbles
rather than lungs.

There is nothing left from charred remains
nor can life exist in a safe suspension awaiting melt.

How outrageous we forget –
others matter to God,
He who embodies the least of these:
the hungry, the thirsty,
the ill, the poor,
the oppressed, the imprisoned.

We’re called to thaw without scorching,
give ourselves without resentment,
find God present even when we wish to hide from him.

May it be
we breathe deeply when the ice around us melts.

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The Smell of Water

At the soft place in the snowbank
Warmed to dripping by the sun
There is the smell of water.
On the western wind the hint of glacier.
A cottonwood tree warmed by the same sun
On the same day,
My back against its rough bark
Same west wind mild in my face.
A piece of spring
Pierced me with love for this empty place
Where a prairie creek runs
Under its cover of clear ice
And the sound it makes,
Mysterious as a heartbeat,
New as a lamb.
~Tom Hennen, “In the Late Season” from Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems. 

While walking the sloping hillside of our farm,
if I listen carefully,
I can hear trickling under the snow.
I can’t see it but I can hear and feel and smell the water;
as a hidden and mysterious melt happens.
Thawing under my feet-
as winter drains away,
spring is on the move.

I witness that which I have no control over,
this subtle softening of frozen ground-
unseen, yet as evident as the steady beating of my heart
as I too begin to thaw and melt
through the miracle of flowing grace
into whatever comes next.


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.

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.

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.

Ice and Fire Burns

Ice burns, and it is hard to the warm-skinned to distinguish one
sensation, fire, from the other, frost.
~A. S. Byatt from Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice

The predicted northeast arctic winds began last night with a minimum of snowfall but already have begun to take a toll: my face and hands are reddened just as if I’ve been in the sun too long.

Whether consumed by flames or frozen solid, resulting in ashes or blocks of ice — somehow the burn yields the same result.

Yet ashes remain ashes, only and forever after, mere dust.

If, instead, during this harsh blow, I’m burned into ice, I know the coming thaw may restore me, melt me slowly by dribs and drabs — no longer imprisoned.

Traipsing About

First day of February,
and in the far corner of the yard
the Adirondack chair,
blown over by the wind at Christmas,

is still on its back,
the snow too deep for me
to traipse out and right it,
the ice too sheer
to risk slamming these old bones
to the ground.

In April
I will walk out
across the warming grass,
and right the chair
as if there had never been anything
to stop me in the first place,
listening for the buzz of hummingbirds
which reminds me of how fast
things are capable of moving.
~John Stanizzi “Ascension”

It has been a wintry February here with more days with snow on the ground than not. There has been constant challenge of finding safe footing when surfaces are snow and ice-covered; the local orthopedists have been busy putting together broken bones and dislocated joints from too many unscheduled landings.

Just when it seems winter will never be done with us, here come hints of transformation: bulbs cracking the soil, koi in the fish pond moving about beneath the ice, shoots shooting, crocus opening. Winter is not forever, February will wrap up its short stay on the calendar and we move forward as if we never had to worry about breaking a bone while traipsing about out in the yard.

All who have fallen are righted again.
All is forgotten.
All is forgiven.
All is well.

Ice Burns Like Fire

Ice burns,
and it is hard to the warm-skinned
to distinguish one sensation,
fire,
from the other,
frost.
~A. S. Byatt from Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
~Robert Frost “Fire and Ice”

Whether we are consumed by flames or frost,
if we rendered ash or crystal —
both burn.

Yet ashes remain ashes, only and forever
mere dust.

If encased in ice, a thaw can restore.
Frozen memories sear
like a sculpture meant to melt,
and thereby the imprisoned
are forever freed.

On Thin 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 are surrounded by divisive opinions about all manner of things — how we should live, who is privileged and who is marginalized, who we should believe, who we cannot possibly believe — these battles of words hog headlines, scroll the bottom of our screens, blare from classrooms, city squares, radios and podcasts.

Continual conflict, literally a splintering crack creaking with our weight, occupies too much of the world’s scarce resources, while compassionate people stand stranded on the frozen lake of political emotions.

The trouble with such overheating in the middle of winter is that we all end up walking on too-thin ice: both those who are far too overconfident in expressing their own righteous views and opinions about how much more they know than others, and those of us who passively listen and judge between the blowhards.

We’ll all end up breaking through the ice, thoroughly doused by the chilly waters below.

Lord, have mercy on us,
show us your Light,
blend the division between shadow and dawn,
help us recognize the cracks creaking beneath our feet,
compelling us to fall to our knees,
before you
and you alone.