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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Sometimes you don’t get a chance To pause and rest Even to just take it all in Sometimes life just goes too fast And if you halt, even for a moment You could get rolled over By the momentum of existence So, push yourself and keep going Because once you stop You may not get started again And if you need a breather Do it after the big stuff is done – I guarantee you the view Will be a whole lot better ~Eric Nixon “The Momentum of Existence” from Equidistant
The weather app on my phone tells me precisely when sunrise and sunset will happen every day, but I’m often too distracted to be present to witness them. I miss some great shows because I don’t get up early enough or don’t return home in time or simply don’t bother to look out the window or pay attention.
These are brilliant light and shadow shows that are free for the having if only I pause, take a breather, and watch.
The view from our hill keeps getting better the older I get. The momentum of daily life slows enough to allow me, breathless, to take in the best art show around.
No charge for admission and the Artist’s exhibit rotates daily.
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What lies at the end of enticing country driveways, curving off among trees? The big trees enclose an expanse of sky, trees and sky together protect the clearing. One is sheltered here from the assaultive world as if escaped from it, and yet once arrived, is given (oneself and others being a part of that world) a generous welcome. It’s paradise as a paradigm for how to live on earth, how to be private and open quiet and richly eloquent.
It is paradise, and paradise is a kind of poem; it has a poem’s characteristics: inspiration; starting with the given; unexpected harmonies; revelations. It’s rare among the worlds one finds at the end of enticing driveways. ~Denise Levertov, “A Clearing” from This Great Unknowing.
I’d made up my mind to it, I’d stay in and read. But a light shower, earlier, had imbued the woods with a peculiar sweetness that drifted in through the open window and tempted me out of doors.
And now, with the mountains reflecting that last slanting light that dusts everything in gold, there was no help for it; I felt an enchantment that encouraged me to venture to deeper realms, deeper far and more mysterious than my favorite armchair would have allowed.
I paused at an opening in the trees, where a russet needled path beckoned inward with an irresistible charm.
Under a canopy of branches, a tiny bird flitted back and forth, as if to guide me on my way; and, on either side, forget-me-nots nodded, sprinkled there, no doubt, from a truant elf’s watering can.
A curve ahead… and I took the strange fancy that at its end I would find a thatched cottage with a chubby “Hansel” peeking ‘round the corner.
Ah, such is the magical quality of a little lane winding its way through the woods. I will return often to wander here, where dreams and reality merge and meet in the moment. ~Melody Rhodes “A Country Lane”
I have always longed to live at the end of a long driveway but have not ever had that opportunity despite living in some lovely rural settings. I think I come from highly practical people who saw long driveways as unnecessary fluff when you can build your home right next to a road.
So, driveway-deprived as I am, I look for enticing country lanes wherever I go. It is partly the anticipation of what my imagination might find beyond the curve and the trees, but much of my pleasure is in looking for the perfect lane to make the mental journey.
Life of course is never perfect and certainly there is plenty that impedes the journey to my destination. Yet I know what all is promised and how I must persist to get to that most heavenly of homes, waiting just around that curve.
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Probably Mary Oliver doesn’t stress out about her hair or quote Led Zeppelin or start to go upstairs to write something mystical about a wood duck, but get sidetracked by The Millionaire Matchmaker, watching four episodes until, panicked by self-loathing, she hits the remote.
She lives somewhere kind of remote. Is there even a Walmart out in Provincetown? Mary never, in an episode of frugality, shops there instead of the food co-op and starts lying about where the Moose Tracks ice cream came from, feigning loyalty to the mystical oils and bulk grains of the co-op where Mystical Mac ‘N Cheese costs an absurd $3.95 a box. There’s a remote chance Mary, while pondering lilies, would get sidetracked by a voicemail from her agent. Even Mary Oliver spaces out on occasion and forgets to turn off her phone. Her days start before dawn; wouldn’t she sometimes have episodes
of thinking, “To hell with the swan, I’m going to watch episodes of Lost in bed all day?” It must be exhausting to be mystical all the time, having to think up poems that start with a smelly turtle and end with the glory of the soul. The remote, sleek as an otter, lolls on her nightstand, calling out for her to take just this one morning off, to follow the tracks
of Matt Lauer and Dr. Phil instead of mucky tracks left in the marsh by tick-ridden deer. Euphoric episodes bound like grasshoppers through St. Mary’s poems, but out in nature there must be days when nothing is special, when mystical epiphanies can’t break through the clouds. Is Mary ever so remote from it all that touching a leaf leaves her blank?
Does she start to get frantic, to fear she’s lost the connection? She starts picturing herself in a smock with a nametag, cleaning finger tracks off the automatic doors while wearing Mona Lisa’s remote smile, a smile barely wide enough to keep her employed. Fighting episodes of despair, she can’t figure out how to turn a shopping cart into a mystical symbol for death—piece of cake for most poets, but not for our Mary, out
there with the flora and fauna, not remotely accustomed to the episodes comprising life for those of us not “married to amazement,” the unmystical singles’ club, sidetracked by diversions. We start toward the door, but we rarely make it out. ~Christine Heppermann, “Pure” from Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty
Moose Tracks ice cream has nothing on Tillamook Mudslide ice cream. And I can quote Simon and Garfunkel but not Led Zeppelin. Cracker Barrel Mac n Cheese is better than any other. If I’m going to take a day to get lost in a binge of streaming episodes, it is most likely going to be Outlander. And I don’t fuss about my hair.
I am well aware I fall far short from the example set by Mary Oliver, Jane Kenyon, Annie Dillard and others for whom writing became a mystical passion of self-discovery in their observation of creation and search for understanding of the Creator.
As someone who as a child could spend hours fascinated by the tiniest bug or follow ant tracks through the woods or catch pollywogs in the creek or lie motionless in a hideaway of tall grass watching clouds roll by on a summer afternoon, I can easily be accused of way too much “blissing out” on sunrises and sunsets as I walk through my days on earth.
The reality is something completely different. I compose my writing and photos as I go about my day, whether it is scooping manure in the barn, taking quick breaks to see how the light is changing outside, or gardening, or hanging up the laundry on the clothesline. I pull over on my way to work for a quick picture if something catches my eye. A trip to the grocery store offers opportunities for a back-roads drive to see how the surrounding cornfields are growing and raspberries are ripening. When I’m fortunate, I’ll spot an eagle in a roadside tree or a new calf nursing.
So every day is a new exploration of what is in my own backyard, not remotely mystical but simply there to be seen and mused over. Rather than married to amazement, I’m attracted to the remarkably mundane. But it does mean I need to walk out the door to meet it head-on.
Even After All this time The sun never says to the earth,
“You owe Me.”
Look What happens With a love like that, It lights the Whole Sky. ~Daniel Ladinsky, from “The Gift”
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She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen into her, so that, like an audience, she can look them over, menacing and sullen, and curl to sleep with them. But all at once
as if awakened, she turns her face to yours; and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny, inside the golden amber of her eyeballs suspended, like a prehistoric fly. ~Ranier Maria Rilke from “Black Cat”
Pangur Bán and I at work, Adepts, equals, cat and clerk: His whole instinct is to hunt, Mine to free the meaning pent.
All the while, his round bright eye Fixes on the wall, while I Focus my less piercing gaze On the challenge of the page.
With his unsheathed, perfect nails Pangur springs, exults and kills. When the longed-for, difficult Answers come, I too exult.
So it goes. To each his own. No vying. No vexation. Taking pleasure, taking pains, Kindred spirits, veterans.
Day and night, soft purr, soft pad, Pangur Bán has learned his trade. Day and night, my own hard work Solves the cruxes, makes a mark. ~Anonymous Irish monk from “Pangur Bán”, translated by Seamus Heaney
Cally, our first adopted calico cat, was quite elderly and fading fast. Winter is always a tough time for barn cats, even with snug shelter, plentiful food and water. We had lost our 16+ year old tuxedo kitty just a couple months previously, and now Cally, not much younger, was not going to last much longer. She still got up to eat and potty, and still licked her front paws clean, but couldn’t manage much else. Her frame was thin and frail, her coat dull and matted in places, she had been deaf for some time and her eyes were rheumy. She spent her days and nights in a nest of hay on the floor of our horse barn, watching the comings and goings of horse hooves and people rolling by with wheelbarrows full of manure. One evening she allowed me to bring her a little rug to give her a bit more cushion and protection from drafts, as I wouldn’t be surprised to find her permanently curled up there the next morning. Her time was soon to come.
Cally was one of a litter raised in the mid-90’s by good friends, the VanderHaaks, on their acreage a few miles from here. When they had to make a move to a city on the east coast, their Cally and an orange colored kitty were in need of a new home. On arrival, the orange cat immediately ran into the woods, only rarely to be spotted at a distance for a few months and then completely disappeared, possibly a victim of the local coyote pack. Cally strolled onto our farm and decreed it satisfactory. She moved right in, immediately at home with the cows, horses, chickens, our aging dog Tango (who loved cats) and our other cats. In no time, she became the undisputed leader, with great nobility and elegance. There was no one who would dare to question her authority.
We knew Cally was unusual from the start. Tango initially approached her somewhat warily, given the reaction Tango elicited from our other cats (typically a hair raising hiss, scratch and spit). Instead, Cally marched right up, rubbed noses with Tango, and they became fast friends, cuddling together on our front porch whenever it was time to take a nap. They were best pals. Tango surely loved anyone who would snuggle up to her belly and keep her warm and Cally was the perfect belly warmer (as Garrison Keillor says, “a heater cat”).
Our free range rooster seriously questioned this dog/cat relationship. He was a bit indignant about a front porch communal naptime and would strut up the sidewalk, walk up and down the porch and perch on the railing, muttering to himself about how improper it was, and at times getting quite loud and insistent about it. They completely ignored him, which obviously bugged him, proud and haughty bird that he was.
One fall morning, as I opened the front door to go down the driveway to get the newspaper in the pre-dawn mist, I was astonished to see not just a cat and dog snuggled together on the porch mat, but the rooster as well, tucked up next to Tango’s tail. As usual, Tango and Cally didn’t move a muscle when I appeared, as was their habit–I always had to step over them to get to where I needed to go. The rooster, however, was very startled to see me, almost embarrassed. He stood up quickly, flapped his wings a few times, and swaggered off crowing, just to prove he hadn’t compromised his cock-sure raison d’etre.
No, I didn’t have my camera with me and I never found them all together ever again. The reader will have to just take it on faith.
After Tango died, Cally rebounded by taking on the training of our new corgi pup and making sure he understood her regal authority in all things, and demanding, in her silent way, his respect and servitude. He would happily chase other cats, but never Cally. They would touch noses, she would rub against his fur, and tickle his chin with her tail and all he could think to do was smile and wag at her.
So I figure a dog, a cat and a rooster sleeping together was our little farm’s version of the lion and lamb lying down together. We can learn something from the peaceable kingdom right outside our front door, a harbinger of what is possible for the rest of us. Despite claws, sharp teeth, and talons and too many inflexible opinions, it is possible to snuggle together in harmony and mutual need for warmth and comfort.
Our special Cally made it happen here on earth. Up in heaven, I suspect she has met up with Tango, and one rooster with attitude, for a nice nap on the other side.
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the goat; and the calf and the young lion and the yearling together; and a little child shall lead them. Isaiah 11:6
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Being introverted, I would expect to enjoy time alone. But I don’t. A conversation with myself is uninspiring, leading me back into the inner circle of my thoughts when I would much rather explore the unknown of another’s view of the world. Alone, I feel exceptionally unexceptional and extraordinarily ordinary. Quite simply, without others around me, I’m empty.
At night, when I drive up to our farm and see both house and barn glowing with lights and life rather than still and dark, it is a warm blessing to return home. Someone left the lights on for me.
The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched. ~Henry David Thoreau
Painting the indescribable with words necessitates subtlety, sound and rhythm on a page. The best word color portraits I know are by Gerard Manley Hopkins who created through startling combinations: “crimson-cresseted”, “couple-colour”, “rose-moles”, “fresh-firecoal”, “adazzle, dim”, “dapple-dawn-drawn”, “blue-bleak embers”, “gash gold-vermillion”.
I understand, as Thoreau does, how difficult it is to harvest a day using ordinary words. Like grasping ephemeral star trails or the transient rainbow that moves away as I approach, what I hold on the page is intangible yet very real.
I will keep reaching for the rainbow, searching for the best words to preserve my days and nights forever, for my someday greatgrandchildren, or whoever might have the patience to read.
After all, in the beginning was the Word, and there is no better place to start.
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We drove across high prairie, the Mississippi behind us, nothing ahead for miles but sky,
a loamy sky, thick enough to put a trowel into, but off to the south clouds pulled
away from one another as if to stand back take a long look, and in that
space what light was left of the sun already gone below the horizon
flowed up and held there and we did too hold our breaths at the sudden beauty. ~Athena Kildegaard “We drove across high prairie…” from Cloves & Honey.
We didn’t drive this time; instead we boarded a plane with other masked people, holding our breath with the unfamiliarity of being so close to strangers— rather than a response to the beauty of what we saw.
The vast landscape appeared below rather than stretching out before us, its emptiness stark and lonely from the air as well as from the road.
We hold our breath, awed by the reality that we are truly here. Really here, one way or the other.
In two hours, rather than two days. Masked, but never blind to the beauty.
We don’t need to understand why a rainbow or fogbow is formed in order to appreciate its beauty, of course, but understanding the physics of rainbows does give us a new set of eyes. I call this the beauty of knowledge. ~Walter Lewin from For the Love of Physics
Ghaist o a gaw that few hae seen paintit on fog lyk a fugue o thi scheme Noah supposit thi Lord tae mean when aa were drooned, ither hauf o yin o His een thon runic roond.
Rope o smoke lyk a loop on a cable, Grisaille Cain tae thi rainbow’s Abel, ultra-blank tae infra-sable, auld noose o tow; Yin that’s strang whaur Yang is faible: faur are ye now? ~WN Herbert“The Fogbow” from Omnesia
(this is my best guess of the meaning of Herbert’s inventive English/Gaelic/Scottish)
Ghost of a rainbow bruise that few have seen painted on fog like a fugue of this scheme Noah supposed the Lord to mean when all were drowned the other half of the dark cold earth is a mysterious rune ruined.
A rope of smoke like a loop on a cable a gray pallid Cain to the rainbow’s Abel, outer-white to inner-black old noose in tow; the cold and dark is strong where warmth and light is feeble: where are you now?
Look at a rainbow. While it lasts, it is or appears to be, a great arc of many colours occupying a position out there in space…. And now, before it fades, recollect all you have ever been told about the rainbow and its causes, and ask yourself the question, Is it really there? You know from memory that if you walked to the place where the rainbow ends, or seems to end, it would certainly not be ‘there’. In a word, reflection will assure you that the rainbow is the outcome of the sun, the raindrops and your own vision. ~Owen Barfield writing about “The Rainbow”
We saw our first “fogbow” or “ghost rainbow” early yesterday on our morning walk. It happened as we were heading east toward the sun, with the fog thickening, filling in behind us. We had just turned around to check the road to be sure no cars were coming before we crossed to the other side and there was this spectral image of foggy columns curving upward over the road to barely touch one another at the top. As we moved away from it, it vanished, as they say, “into thin air.”
This is an unusual phenomenon where the light and moisture in the air needs to be just right – reading about the physics of the fogbow helps to explain it and to render it even more beautiful. But the knowledge of how it happens isn’t nearly as impactful as the fact it was there at all for us to witness. Without our vision, it wasn’t really “there.”
The “bruised” rainbow color in the sky is God’s Old Testament promise to Noah to never destroy the world by flood again, establishing an everlasting covenant with His people while giving us the capacity to witness His promise. Perhaps the fogbow is ghostly reminder of those who have perished, whose blood, like Abel’s, cried out to God from the earth.
But where are we now? Do we seek to understand, believing the promises God made to us? Or do we walk right past God and His miraculous physics of creation, oblivious to what would not even exist without our ability to see it?
Somewhere, over the fogbow, way up high…
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overly delicate, like a flower skimmed of all fragrance.
You hear in the long last notes of the nightingale’s song
how to harbor what’s left of joy, how spring clutches
the green shoot of life and holds on and on through summer, prepares
for no end that is sure in coming, the fall ever endlessly repeating. ~Maureen Doallas “Recounting Seasons”, from Neruda’s Memoirs
One of my greatest joys is watching time as days become weeks, then months, and as years flow by, the seasons repeat seemingly endlessly. I know they must end for me eventually so I anticipate transitions before they take place.
In the “olden” days, many farmers kept daily hand-written diaries to track the events of the seasons: when the soil was warm enough to sow, when the harvest was ready, the highs and lows of temperature fluctuations, how many inches in the rain gauge, how deep the snow.
Now we follow the years with a swift scroll in our photo collection in our phones: the tulips bloomed two weeks later this year, or the tomatoes ripened early or the pears were larger two years ago.
I take comfort things tend to repeat predictably year after year, yet I can spot subtle differences. Our hydrangea bushes are a harbinger of seasonal change: they are blooming a darker burgundy color this year, the lace caps are mostly blue rather than pink and purple. Their blooms fade eventually into blended earth tones, then blanche, finally losing color altogether and becoming skeletal.
And so it is with me. I harbor joy by noticing each change, knowing the repetition of the seasons and the cycle of blooming will continue, with or without me here watching. I am unnecessary except as a recorder of fact.
I will keep watching and keep documenting as long as I’m able.
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