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.
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.
And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A gale arose on the lake, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, ‘Lord, save us! We are perishing!’ And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, you of little faith?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?’
Sweet Jesus, talking his melancholy madness, stood up in the boat and the sea lay down,
silky and sorry. So everybody was saved that night… Nobody knows what the soul is.
It comes and goes like the wind over the water — sometimes, for days, you don’t think of it.
Maybe, after the sermon, after the multitude was fed, one or two of them felt the soul slip forth
like a tremor of pure sunlight before exhaustion, that wants to swallow everything, gripped their bones and left them
miserable and sleepy, as they are now, forgetting how the wind tore at the sails before he rose and talked to it —
tender and luminous and demanding as he always was — a thousand times more frightening than the killer storm.
~Mary Oliver from “Maybe”
I sleep through my diminishing days even more than I sleep through the nights, not nearly focused enough on each passing moment that never is to come again. Those moments crash to shore and then pull back to be lost forever.
There is a blindness in us all about what is inevitably coming, how we are tumbled over the years like waves, overcome by their passage.
He is tender and luminous and demanding and He talks to us, not just the relentless stormy destructive sea.
Peace be still!
And so I obey, forgiven, and am saved by grace,
so silky and sorry.
I wanted to treat feelings that are not recognized as afflictions and are never diagnosed by doctors. All those little feelings and emotions no therapist is interested in,
because they are apparently too minor and intangible.
The feeling that washes over you when another summer nears its end.
Or when you recognize that you haven’t got your whole life left to find out where you belong.
Or the slight sense of grief when a friendship doesn’t develop as you thought,
and you have to continue your search for a lifelong companion.
Or those birthday morning blues.
Nostalgia for the air of your childhood.
Things like that. ~Nina George from The Little Paris Bookshop
A white vase holds a kaleidoscope of wilting sweet peas
captive in the sunlight on the kitchen table while
wafting morning scent of pancakes
with sticky maple syrup swirls on the plate,
down the hall a dirty diaper left too long in the pail,
spills over tempera paint pots with brushes rinsed in jars after
stroking bright pastel butterflies fluttering on an easel
while wearing dad’s oversized shirt buttoned backwards
as he gently guides a hand beneath the downy underside
of the muttering hen reaching a warm egg hiding in the nest
broken into fragments like a heart while reading
the last stanza of “Dover Beach” in freshman English
Just down the hall of clanging lockers
To orchestra where strains of “Clair de Lune” accompany
the yearning midnight nipple tug of a baby’s hungry suck
hiccups gulping in rhythm to the rocking rocking
waiting for a last gasp for breath
through gaping mouth, mottled cooling skin
lies still between bleached sheets
illuminated by curtain filtered moonlight just visible
through the treetops while whoosh of owl wings
are felt not heard, sensed not seen.
Waking to bright lights and whirring machines
the hushed voice of the surgeon asking
what do you see now, what can you hear, what odor,
what flavor, what sensation on your skin
with each probe of temporal lobe, of fornix
and amygdala hidden deep in gray matter
of neurons and synaptic holding bins of chemical transmitters
storing the mixed bag of the past and present
to find and remove the offending lesion that seizes up
all remembrance, all awareness
and be set free again to live, to love, to swoon at the perfume
of spring sweet peas climbing dew fresh at dawn,
tendril wrapping over tendril,
the peeling wall of the garden shed
…to love life, to love it even when you have no stomach for it and everything you’ve held dear crumbles like burnt paper in your hands, your throat filled with the silt of it. When grief sits with you, its tropical heat thickening the air, heavy as water more fit for gills than lungs; when grief weights you like your own flesh only more of it, an obesity of grief, you think, How can a body withstand this? Then you hold life like a face between your palms, a plain face, no charming smile, no violet eyes, and you say, yes, I will take you I will love you, again. — Ellen Bass “The Thing Is…” from Mules of Love
It begins again, even though I’m unprepared. No matter which way I turn, autumn’s kaleidoscope displays new patterns, new colors, new empty spaces as I watch the world die into itself once again. Some dying is flashy, brilliant, blazing – a calling out for attention. Then there is the hidden dying that happens without anyone taking notice: just a plain, tired, rusting away letting go.
I will spend the morning adjusting to the change in season by occupying myself with the familiar task of moving manure. Cleaning barn is a comforting chore, allowing me to transform tangible benefit from something objectionable and just plain stinky to the nurturing fertilizer of the future. It feels like I’ve actually accomplished something.
As I scoop and push the wheelbarrow, I recall another barn cleaning fifteen years ago, when I was one of three or four friends left cleaning over ninety stalls after a Haflinger horse event that I had organized at our local fairgrounds. Some people had brought their horses from over 1000 miles away to participate for several days. There had been personality clashes and harsh words among some participants along with criticism directed at me as the organizer that I had taken very personally. As I struggled with the umpteenth wheelbarrow load of manure, tears stung my eyes and my heart. I was miserable with regret. After going without sleep and making personal sacrifices over many months planning and preparing for the benefit of our group, my work felt futile and unappreciated.
One friend had stayed behind with her young family to help clean up the large facility and she could see I was struggling to keep my composure. Jenny put herself right in front of my wheelbarrow and looked me in the eye, insisting I stop for a moment and listen:
“You know, none of these troubles and conflicts will amount to a hill of beans years from now. People will remember a fun event in a beautiful part of the country, a wonderful time with their Haflingers, their friends and family, and they’ll be all nostalgic about it, not giving a thought to the infighting or the sour attitudes or who said what to whom. So don’t make this about you and whether you did or didn’t make everyone happy. You loved us all enough to make it possible to meet here and the rest was up to us. So quit being upset about what you can’t change. There’s too much you can still do for us.”
During tough times since (and there have been plenty), Jenny’s advice replays, reminding me to cease seeking appreciation from others or feeling hurt when harsh words come my way. She was right about the balm found in the tincture of time. She was right about giving up the upset in order to die to self and self absorption, and instead to focus outward.
I have remembered.
Jenny herself did not know that day fifteen years ago she would subsequently spend six years dying while still loving her life every day, fighting a relentless cancer that was only slowed in the face of her faith and intense drive to live. She became a rusting leaf gone holy, fading imperceptibly over time, crumbling at the edges until five years ago this past week, she finally had to let go. Her dying did not flash brilliance, nor draw attention at the end. Her intense focus during the years of her illness had always been outward to others, to her family and friends, to the healers she spent so much time with in medical offices, to her firm belief in the plan God had written for her and those who loved her.
So Jenny let go her hold on life here. And we reluctantly let her go. Brilliance cloaks her as her focus is now on things eternal.
You were so right, Jenny. Nothing from fifteen years ago amounts to a hill of beans now. Except the words you spoke to me that day, teaching me to love life even when I have no stomach for it.
And I won’t be upset that I can’t change what is past and the fact that you have left us.
There are all kinds of silences and each of them means a different thing.
There is the silence that comes with morning in a forest,
and this is different from the silence of a sleeping city.
There is silence after a rainstorm,
and before a rainstorm,
and these are not the same.
There is the silence of emptiness,
the silence of fear,
the silence of doubt.
There is a certain silence that can emanate from a lifeless object
as from a chair lately used,
or from a piano with old dust upon its keys,
or from anything that has answered to the need of a man,
for pleasure or for work.
This kind of silence can speak.
Its voice may be melancholy,
but it is not always so;
for the chair may have been left by a laughing child
or the last notes of the piano may have been raucous and gay.
Whatever the mood or the circumstance,
the essence of its quality may linger in the silence that follows.
It is a soundless echo. ~Beryl Markham from West From the Night
Silence shouts loud wherever I am,
so I capture it as best I can,
echoing what just has been,
what should have been
or could have been.
It is the sound of remembrance,
that what once was
can be no longer.
You are alive. It needn’t have been so. It wasn’t so once, and will not be forever. But it is so now.
And what is it like:
to be alive in this one place of all places anywhere where life is?
Live a day of it and see.
Take any day and LIVE IT.
Nobody claims that it will be entirely painless, but no matter.
It is your birthday and there are many presents to open.The world is to be opened.
It is the first day because it has never been before
and the last day because it will never be again.
BE ALIVE. ~Frederick Buechner from The Alphabet of Grace
During these turbulent times
when too many regret living and quit,
when too many are deprived of taking a first breath,
when too many live shrouded in pain and sorrow:
I tend to forget each day is a gift to be opened and savored.
Each day a first day, a last day, a birthday of amazing grace.
I am alive, by God, it needn’t have been so, but is so now.
‘Hold on,’ she said, ‘I’ll just run out and get him. The weather here’s so good, he took the chance To do a bit of weeding.’
So I saw him Down on his hands and knees beside the leek rig, Touching, inspecting, separating one Stalk from the other, gently pulling up Everything not tapered, frail and leafless, Pleased to feel each little weed-root break, But rueful also…
Then found myself listening to The amplified grave ticking of hall clocks Where the phone lay unattended in a calm Of mirror glass and sunstruck pendulums…
And found myself then thinking: if it were nowadays, This is how Death would summon Everyman.
Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him.
~Seamus Heaney “A Call”