Christmas ~ Once More, With Felines

Many of you met Dixie Rose and her merry Cat Carols some years ago, but newer readers haven’t had the pleasure. She’s no longer with me to celebrate the season, but her legacy lives on. In this difficult year, her carols — including one never before published — seem a fitting tribute, and a fine bit of fun.

If you dared to laugh at the antlers, you laughed at your peril. That business-like look in the eyes of my beautiful calico demanded respect. Dixie Rose (short for Dixie Rose, Center of the Universe and Queen of All She Surveys) loved Christmas, and she intended to be ready when it arrived. I never attempted to stand in her way.

Dixie arrived on my doorstep as an unloved, four-month-old stray who became my first real pet. During my childhood, the painted turtle met an unfortunate end, and the birthday puppy that terrified me with its enthusiasm had to be sent away, but even the feisty fox squirrel and standoffish prairie dog that arrived later and stayed longer hardly qualified as pets.

Dixie Rose was a different matter. A beautiful, spoiled creature, she brought me great happiness despite her quirks, and eventually she came to accept me with bemused tolerance.

During our first Christmas season together, it became obvious that old routines would have to be adjusted. Tree trimming and gift wrapping ended in chaos as shredded ribbon, broken ornaments, and pulled-down swags marked her passage through the house.

After she tipped the tree a second time and then a third, I surrendered. We celebrated with a bare tree weighted at its base with several feet of galvanized chain. No candles burned. No poinsettias glowed. Presents piled up in the closet until time for humans to unwrap them, and all things sparkly were banned due to my furry darling’s obsessive appetite for tinsel, glitter, and gold.

As Christmas Day approached, Dixie and I engaged in sharp disagreement about the nature of true celebration. Things weren’t always good that year, and the phrase “This hurts me more than it hurts you” became as common as “Merry Christmas.”

Eventually, I began trying to distract her and amuse myself with the first of the Cat Carols. Before long, she began to contribute her own verses. (Click any title for the original version.)

Wreck the Halls

Wreck the halls all decked with holly,
Fa-la-la-la-la, la la-la-la.
Sheer destruction is so jolly,
Fa-la…
Tip the tree with all its treasures,
Fa-la…
Shred the presents for good measure!
Fa-la…
Fast away the fur-ball passes,
Fa-la…
To wreak havoc on the masses,
Fa-la…
Swinging through the punch and cookies,
Fa-la…
Snarling at the reindeer rookies,
Fa-la…

When I included the lyrics to “Wreck the Halls” in Dixie’s Christmas card to her vet, he suggested she keep writing. So, she did.

Stalking in a Winter Wonderland

Collars ring, are you listening?
In the lane, eyes are glistening…
The moon is so bright, we’re happy tonight,
Stalking in a winter wonderland.
Gone away are the bluebirds,
Here to stay are the new birds.
They sing their sweet songs as we skulk along,
Stalking in a winter wonderland.
In the meadow we can build a snow mouse,
And pretend that he is fat and brown.
He’ll say “Are you hungry?” We’ll say, “No, mouse,
but we’ll save you for dinner on the town.”
Later on, we’ll retire
For a snooze by the fire,
And dream of the prey we’ll catch the next day,
Stalking in a winter wonderland.

Of course, not everyone loves the kitty-cats, so there’s even a song for them. I don’t advocate shooting cats (or dogs, or people, for that matter), but I do understand how pure frustration might lead to this:

Jingle Bells

Jingle bells, shotgun shells, there’s that danged old cat!
Get my gun, let’s have some fun, I know just where he’s at!
Jingle bells, oh, Hell’s bells, now he’s on the run!
If I find my glasses, that cat’s hunting days are done.
A day or two ago, I thought I’d feed the birds,
I grabbed a bag of seed, a second and a third.
But halfway ‘cross the yard, I saw the bushes shake,
It was my neighbor’s scroungy cat, a big orange tom named Jake.
Oh, jingle bells, shotgun shells, (repeat chorus)…..
I love to feed the birds, it makes me feel so glad.
But Jake, that danged old cat, he makes me so darned mad!
He’s not content to eat a lizard or a mouse,
He wants to eat my pretty birds: that cat’s a stinking louse!
Oh, jingle bells, shotgun shells (repeat chorus)

Like children, cats need to be reminded that the magical night is not far off, and there’s a cautionary tale just for them:

Santa Cat is Coming to Town

Oh, you’d better not hiss, you’d better not bite,
You’d better not tempt the dog to a fight;
Santa Cat is coming to town!
He’s making a list, checking it twice,
Gonna find out who chased all those mice,
Santa Cat is coming to town!
He knows when you’ve been scratching,
He knows who you’ve outfoxed,
He knows if you’ve been in a snit
And refused your litter box!
With potted cat grass and catnip-filled balls,
Snuggly warm beds and mice from the malls,
Santa Cat is coming to town.

Eventually Dixie’s online friends joined the fun, sending along their own contributions to the songfest. Housecats themselves, Mister Man and Miss Moo knew how to have a good time despite not being allowed to stalk in the great outdoors.

Hark! The Housebound Felines Sing

Hark! the housebound felines sing,
Glory to the milk-jug ring!
Mice on earth and squirrels reviled,
Even indoors we are wild!
Warily our tails we twitch as
Through the halls our toys we pitch, while
With triumphant meows proclaim,
Cats do have superior brains!
Hark, the housebound felines sing,
Glory to the milk jug ring!

Eventually, Dixie began working on another song, but while “O, Christmas Bush” bubbled away in our lyrical stewpot, she departed this mortal coil, leaving only a fragment of song:

O, Christmas Bush

O, Christmas Bush, O, Christmas Bush,
I sat upon you with my tush.
I did not see you lying there;
Thank God you weren’t a prickly pear.
O Christmas Bush, O, Christmas Bush,
I do believe you’re flattened.

It’s pure silliness of course: just another bit of holiday excess. On the other hand, excess isn’t necessarily bad, and even silly excess can become a path toward truth.

Singing these seasonal parodies to Dixie Rose, I often thought of another, joy-filled carol. Remarkably, we don’t sing, “Joy to human beings: joy to those who walk upright, drive cars, open too many credit card accounts, and are nasty on social media.” We don’t sing, “Joy to the church-goers, the faithful, the worthy, the few.” No, we sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her king.”

The joy we sing is meant for the whole world: for stars and dirt, mountains and seas, trees, rocks, valleys and hills, and every creature that dwells within. While human hearts prepare, heaven and nature are singing out this truth: the gifts of the season are meant for all. The coming of truth and grace is meant for the world as a whole. We who inhabit that world, tracing a path upon its soil and gazing upon its stars, are called to sing its praises, too.

Whether you celebrate Christmas or whether you don’t, whether you take the promises of the season seriously or simply enjoy the traditions and the festivity, accept these bits of silliness as a gift from Dixie Rose. Feel free to laugh at them, sing them to yourself, or pass them on to friends. Believe me – an entire room filled with pet-lovers singing these songs can be hilarious, and they’ve been known to bring a smile even to the face of the most anti-feline Scrooge.

As for Dixie Rose, eventually she learned she could avoid kitty-jail by avoiding kitty-misbehavior, and we trimmed our tree in peace. Free to hang ornaments even on the lowest branches, and to display cookies and gifts without fear, I prepared our celebrations while she spent her afternoons sleeping in the low, slanting light. I often imagined visions of catnip-plums dancing in her head as she awaited, in perfect peace and joy, whatever gifts would come next.

In this season of Advent, this season of waiting and anticipation, may we all be blessed with such peace and joy.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Such a Nice Fruitcake!

Johnny Carson said it, although I never believed it. Every year he began the Christmas season by reminding us that “There’s only one fruitcake in the world. It’s been passed around from person to person since time immemorial, and it doesn’t matter how hard you try. You’ll never escape The Fruitcake.”

Of course his little joke wasn’t based in fact. Every year, multitudes of fruitcakes march like overzealous Nutcrackers into the heart of the holiday season, overflowing store shelves and filling up catalogs. How essentially good ingredients — fruit and cake — can be combined into a ‘treat’ both gummy and dry is beyond me, but the fruitcake people have managed it. I prefer not to waste my holiday calories on something that appears to have been circulating since the days of the Roman Empire, and I’ve always wished Carson were right. If only one fruitcake existed, it would be easier to escape the ghastly conconction.

Behind every fruitcake, of course, lurks a fruitcake-baker, and over the years various friends tried to convince me they’d finally discovered the secret to truly good fruitcake: soaking the raisins in bourbon, pouring brandy over the finished cake, substituting walnuts for pecans, eliminating the candied pineapple. Despite their opinions, I never wavered in my conviction that fruitcake was dense, dry and tasteless: except when it was gummy, sticky and tasteless. It was a grim excuse for a dessert, and a terrible holiday tradition.

When it came to fruitcakes, I was following in my father’s footstep. If co-workers or business associates gave Dad a fruitcake, presenting it to him with smiles so big you’d think they’d just handed over the keys to a Mercedes, Dad always responded graciously. He’d thank the givers profusely, then rid himself of the cake as soon as their backs were turned. Sometimes he sliced it up and left it in the coffee room at work. Sometimes he gave it to the postman. Now and then, he put one into a gag-gift exchange, counting himself lucky if he received a fishing lure or risqué necktie in return.

As the fruitcakes piled up, he always gave at least one to my grandparents’ neighbor, Sadie. One memorable Christmas, Sadie’d had enough. She gave the fruitcake to my unknowing grandparents and, ever willing to share, Grandma sliced up the cake and presented it to my dad. “Sadie! Such a nice woman!” she said. “See what she gave us — a fruitcake! Have a piece! Have two!” And so he did; my poor father playing the role of the good son, eating the fruitcake that had come home to roost.

One year, after lugging home the biggest fruitcake we’d ever seen, he suggested leaving it in the pantry for a year to see what happened. In the end, nothing happened. We opened the fruitcake a year later, sliced it up and gave it a try. It didn’t taste any better or worse than any other fruitcake. That was the year my frugal father began tossing out any fruitcake that came through the door. Under normal circumstances, wasting food wasn’t allowed in our house, but, as my ever-reasonable father pointed out, fruitcake doesn’t meet any of the normal criteria for food.

Edward Gorey’s Fruitcake Toss

It seems we were on the cutting edge. As more people became willing to admit their distaste for traditional fruitcake, the good folk of Manitou Springs, Colorado caught on and ritualized the tossing of the fruitcake. Their Great Fruitcake Toss became a Chamber of Commerce event involving catapults, relay teams, high school science classes, and spatula races. Even out-of-town visitors could participate; local motels provided personalized, heavy-duty fruitcakes to anyone wanting to join in the fun.

Eventually, I discovered fruitcake-free zones scattered around the world, but once I moved to Texas, there was no avoiding that apotheosis of fruitcake production, Corsicana’s Collin Street Bakery. As the Handbook of Texas notes, the place has quite a history.

In 1896 August Weidmann, a young German immigrant, opened a bakery on Collin Street in Corsicana, with financial backing from Tom McElwee, a local cotton buyer and opera-house proprietor. Weidmann’s specialty was fruitcake baked by a recipe he had brought with him from his native country. McElwee suggested the trade name DeLuxe Fruitcake for the product.
In 1906 the business was moved to a location on Sixth Avenue, and there McElwee opened an exclusive hotel on the second floor of the bakery. Enrico Caruso, John J. McGraw, and Will Rogers were among the celebrities who stayed at the hotel at various times. In 1914 a Ringling Brothers circus troupe, in Corsicana for a performance, bought dozens of DeLuxe Fruitcakes to give as Christmas gifts to friends and relatives all over the United States and in Europe. As a result, the bakery received an overwhelming number of orders from the recipients for more cakes, and the company’s mail-order business resulted.

When friends discovered I’d never eaten a Collin Street cake, a fruitcake party was arranged. Everyone brought their own version of fruit-and-cake, with the famous Texas fruitcake rounding out the menu. There were delicious offerings, to be sure: pear tortes and mincemeat tarts, apple-raisin-and-walnut cakes, povitica, and panettone. I brought along my California fruitcake, a concoction of apricots, dates, and pecans that fit in nicely.

After a few hours of coffee, desserts, and chit-chat, the Collin Street cake was sliced and passed around. I ate my portion, graciously agreeing, as my father would have, that it was very nice: even as I  thought to myself, I’ll not be buying one of these things. When the hostess asked if anyone would like to add a fruitcake to the order she was placing, I declined. And that, I assumed, was that.

And so it was, until the day I found an unexpected parcel slip in my mailbox. In those pre-Amazon locker days, the manager accepted shipments, but we had to dig through the boxes ourselves. After several minutes of looking, I couldn’t find my package. Hearing my sigh of exasperation, the manager looked around the corner. “How could you miss it?” she said. “It’s right in front of you.”

And so it was. On a box imprinted with a scene that combined frontier Texas with a romanticized winter landscape, I saw my address, and the words Collin Street Bakery. Balancing the box on one hand, I realized it had to be one of Corsicana’s finest: a traditional fruitcake in their famous red tin, studded with pecans and weighing nearly six pounds.

Convinced someone from the fruitcake party had decided to play a joke, I opened the box. The enclosed gift card  bore the name of a friend who lives in England. The fruitcake wasn’t a joke occasioned by my criticisms of the ghastly concoction, but a lovely, seasonal gift sent from the Fruitcake Gods by way of England to affirm Johnny Carson’s truth: You cannot escape The Fruitcake.

After calling my friend to thank her, I carried the cake to my mother’s apartment, and brought it out after dinner. “Oh!” she said. “A fruitcake — and from the Collin Street Bakery! Wherever did you find this?” While I served coffee and cut a few slices, I explained it had been sent as a gift, and laughed as my mother channeled my grandmother. “Oh!” she said. “I remember Jean. Such a nice woman. So nice of her to send you a cake!”

While I picked my way around the candied cherries and citron, Mom made her way through three slices. “It’s too bad,” she said. “I wish your dad was here. He always did love a good fruitcake.” Thinking of the multitudes of fruitcakes my dad had disposed of, I grinned as I gathered the empty plates, knowing that Dad would have been proud to see me tucking the remnants of this one next to Mom’s coffee pot.

“You’d better take your fruitcake with you,” she said, as I headed for the door. Just for a moment, I paused, then said, “I’ll leave it here. Jean will be pleased to know I shared it with you, and the next time I get an urge for fruitcake, I’ll just stop by and cut myself a slice.”

Comments always are welcome.

A Season to Celebrate Waiting

The key sits loosely in its lock: unturned, unnecessary. In a neighborhood where children drift from one house to the next as freely as wind-tossed leaves and women freely borrow milk or sugar from unattended kitchens, no one locks a closet.

In this neighborhood, closets hold no treasure: no jewels, no gold, no banded stacks of bills. They overflow with life’s necessities: shoes still tidy in original boxes, purses and shirts, a wardrobe of ties. Where two closets nestle side by side, hers is an obvious jumble of quilting scraps, extra pillows, photographs, and report cards. His, more intentional, has been arranged more precisely into a purposeful array of hunting vests, stamp paraphernalia, drafting tools, and gun cases. It’s a perfect marriage of closets.

Dimly lit and cave-like, the closets are mysterious, compelling and sancrosanct. Few children dare enter them without permission, but in the weeks before Christmas, a child might forego caution after being tempted by the faintest whisper of possibility: There might be presents…

It’s a special kind of hide-and-seek, this business of children searching out what parents have tucked under the bed, into the basement, or on those out-of-the-way shelves behind the washer. Inevitably, any child will be tempted toward the best hiding-place of all: a parent’s bedroom closet.

When I decided to invade the closets, I found their locks less of an impediment than a bottom hinge. It had needed oiling for months, and protested with a rising, audible whine whenever the door eased open. Hesitation only increased its volume; pulled firmly, resolutely, it remained silent.

More dangerous was the oak floor board lying halfway between the room’s threshold and the closet. However firmly or lightly someone stepped, it creaked beneath their weight: the sound sharper by far than the scrape of branches on winter-frosted windows. Counting from the threshold, it turned out to be the twenty-eighth board that complained. Careless or inattentive, I sometimes failed to watch, count, and count again before crossing the floor. One step on the vocal board would be enough to raise a different voice from the living room below: “Get out of that closet!”

I lived for several years with that twenty-eighth board, plotting and planning my way across the bedroom floor like Meriwether Lewis confronting a cataract. Even today, faint beneath the raucous holiday traffic and insistent, obnoxious advertising, I sometimes hear that murmuring hinge and the floor board’s muffled creak. Their memories evoke more than amusing sorties and nostalgic sounds. There is the sting of regret; the slight, bitter taste of deception; and the chagrin of learning what life can hold for a child who refuses to wait for Christmas.

The year impatience overcame me, the tree already was upright and strung with lights, ready for cranberry garlands and tinfoil bells. The first of the Christmas cookies had been baked and decorated, and the menu planned for Christmas dinner. Still, the house felt empty, bereft of the excitement and anticipation stirred by the sight of gifts.

No bits of wrapping paper decorated the trash; no extra Scotch tape or out-of-place scissors suggested seasonal activity. Most suspiciously, no tell-tale car doors slammed after I’d been sent to bed. I wasn’t precisely worried, but recent exposure to Santa rumors had left me cautious, and just a little nervous about my best friend’s contention that kids who don’t believe in Santa don’t get gifts. Eventually, I thought, I’d need to check things out.

A week later, our family was invited to a neighbor’s open house, and my mother allowed me the choice of coming along or staying home. Sensing opportunity, I choose to stay home, muttering vague justifications about needing to work on school projects. From an upstairs window, I watched my parents cross the yard, then disappear into our neighbor’s home.

With my parents safely occupied, I sprinted out of my bedroom and into their room, heedless of the squeaking board. As I opened the door to my dad’s closet, the thin, lambent sunlight of late afternoon barely lit its contents.  I pulled the chain hanging from a single, overhead bulb, and the sudden explosion of light confirmed my worst fears. Nothing was out of place. Half-heartedly, I pushed back some shirts, and peered at the familiar shoe boxes. No packages huddled in the gloom, no paper or ribbon hinted at Christmas glory. Perplexed, I shut the door.

Despite my conviction that any gifts would have been secreted in my father’s closet, I glanced into my mother’s closet, then stepped inside the already-opened door. Even after turning on the light, I nearly missed the glint of candy cane striped foil. Lifting up what appeared to be a hastily tossed heap of mending, I gasped at the pile of waiting boxes, neatly wrapped and ready for bows. Each carried a tag, and of the few that I could see, most carried my name.

At the time, I’d not heard the phrase ‘crime of opportunity,’ but on that day I had opportunity, and I fell easily into crime.

Carefully, cautiously, neither moving the mending nor unstacking the boxes, I lifted the clear tape from the neat, vee’d fold of paper on one end of a box. The wrapping paper, heavy, smooth, and slick to the touch, remained intact. The tape peeled up perfectly, the sharp, crisp folds of paper popped open easily, and I discovered the contents by reading the end of the box.

Oddly, I no longer remember the box’s contents. I recall only my sudden sense of guilt, a dread of being discovered, and the disappointment I experienced when unwrapping the package on Christmas morning. Guilt, disappointment, and dread would have been punishment enough, but worse by far was my first, unhappy taste of dishonesty’s primary consequence: having to pretend all was right when, in fact, everything was wrong.

My unwillingness to wait, born of a child’s desire for immediate gratification and an inability to trust that gifts would be given, had left me unable to celebrate. I spent that terrible day wishing only for Christmas to end, and I never engaged in untimely unwrapping again.

Today, during this strange season of demands and disappointment, the beginning of the season called Advent extends a gracious invitation to delay gratification, and learn a deeper patience.

A season of silence and shadows, Advent whispers an uncomfortable truth: waiting is the condition of our lives. From birth to death, from our coming in to our going out of this amazing, implausible world, we live our lives in a state of perpetual waiting.

We wait for arguments to be resolved and peace to be restored; for bitterness to ebb and pain to flow away. Season after season, we await the budding of spring and the gathering of the harvest: the coming of the storm and the clearing of the sky. Sleepless after midnight, we wait for time to pass until the coming of the dawn. Exhausted by the day, we wait for the blessing of darkness, and the restorative powers of sleep. Always, we wait for laughter; for love; and for the simple, unexpected gifts of life.

Of course, in the process of waiting, there are choices to be made and consequences to be suffered. Like over-eager children before a pile of gifts, we can be tempted to rush our lives, demanding immediate satisfaction even though our willingness to slip away a ribbon, lift a bit of tape, and unfold a sheet of love-creased paper may destroy our joy.

But when patience is learned, waiting becomes a mysterious and compelling experience that arrives hand in hand with whispers of possibility. T.S. Eliot clearly understood that waiting can become the greatest gift of all: a gift that nurtures and deepens our humanity.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

 

Comments always are welcome.

A Perfect Storm

Dislodged by autumn’s rising winds, acorns have begun bouncing and tumbling across the landscape, the sound of their fall exploding into the air like the percussive chatter of firecrackers.

If you’re standing near a car when the first gust strikes and the oaks release their seed-crop, the racket is astounding. If you’re sheltering beneath a tin roof, the sound amplifies and becomes deafening. A storm of ripened acorns may be less destructive than hail, but it’s no less impressive.

I experienced my first acorn storm in the Texas hill country, an area of valleys and ridges threaded through with several varieties of oak. The swell of redbuds in spring, the extravagant yellow blooms of prickly pear, the Virginia creeper climbing toward autumn’s true red: all delight the eyes, but the oak can surprise the ears.

I first heard of ‘acorn storms’ on a hill country porch. We’d been rocking and rail-sitting, drinking sweet tea and watching the deer, when someone mentioned the acorn crop. Stories began to flow about lean years and fat, hunger and starvation. As the tales grew more extravagant, I began to laugh. “You might as well be talking snow,” I said. “When you call it the Great Acorn Storm of ’78, you sound like a bunch of Yankees sitting around the woodstove, recalling a particularly memorable blizzard.”

In truth, acorn storms remain as unpredictable as blizzards. Even when the crop is good, there’s no sure way to know when they’ll fall, so there’s nothing to do but wait until the acorns’ great, clacking fall sounds the dinner bell for a multitude of woodland creatures.

My own first experience came just after midnight in a cabin outside Kerrville. A single acorn falling on the tin roof from the oak overhanging the cabin sounded like a gunshot. Roused from sleep to full, heart-pounding attention, I watched prowling shadows wrap their fingers around the window frames, stealthy and intrusive. The same gust of wind that separated the seed from its tree set the outside lantern swaying, giving life to the shadows, but as the wind laid and the lantern grew still, the moving shadows settled back into darkness, and the night grew still.

Convinced at last that neither man nor beast had come to claim my life, I settled back myself and began drifting into sleep. Then, another acorn fell and scrabbled down the roof, followed by a second. As the wind crossed the ridge and began swirling into the valley, branches bent and bowed as a torrent of acorns fell, filling the night with strange, percussive rhythms and the sharp, metallic clatter of their tumble down the roof. It was, I told friends later, a perfect storm.

Apart from their ability to compel the attention of inexperienced city folk, acorns are interesting. They come in assorted sizes and colors, and sport a variety of rakish caps. Smooth, small acorns from live oaks differ considerably from those of the Bur oak, a tree whose large acorn wears a furry, vaguely Russian-looking cap.

Regardless of size, all acorns are a critical part of the food chain. Squirrels and deer dote on them, as do mice, rabbits, foxes, and raccoons. A variety of birds also enjoy them: not only the wild turkey, jay, and woodpecker you might expect, but also water birds like the egrets.

The crop size varies from year to year, partly because of differences in the production cycle of different species. Bur oak production peaks every five to seven years, while live oaks produce extraordinary numbers of acorns every four to ten years. During so-called ‘mast years,’ walking beneath the trees can be like walking on ball bearings.

Publications from county agents, universities, and arborists note this wide variation in yearly acorn production. Most also include a caveat against attempting to draw other, more speculative conclusions from the number of acorns produced. ‘Speculative conclusions’ is a polite term for folk wisdom which believes in the predictive power of acorns. My own grandparents were certain an abundance of acorns signals a harsh winter to come, and a friend who grew up in Nebraska shared this bit of weather wisdom from the plains:  Busy squirrels, blizzards swirl.

Beyond natural cycles, the perfect combination of sunshine and rain can produce a bumper crop of acorns, just as the crop can be diminished by disease, drought, or freezing temperatures.

On the other hand, many believe that diseased or drought-stricken oaks produce more acorns, not fewer, as a way of ensuring the species’ survival. During the worst of our Texas droughts, someone always suggests that a bumper crop of acorns is a last gasp from water-deprived trees.

Arborists seem divided, but there is something both poignant and hopeful in the thought of thirsty, over-heated oaks setting their sights on survival by creating, nurturing, and finally shedding huge numbers of acorns. Potential trees, tiny bits of green-yet-to-be, the acorns cover the ground: huddled beneath their leaves, dreaming of the sunlight and rain that will transform their lives.

As it turns out, acorns also function as a handy metaphor for certain seasonal realities.

When my mail carrier mutters about the burden of delivering catalogs in the weeks before Christmas, I sympathize. I expect to receive a few old favorites — LL Bean, Vermont Country Store, American Spoon Foods — and a few still arrive to remind me of years when I sought special gifts — Orvis, Moonstruck, Whiteflower Farm. But somewhat oddly, this year’s catalogs are filling up the mailbox on a nearly daily basis. Most are from companies I’ve never heard of and with whom I’ve never placed an order: companies with names like Monticello, Acacia, Bits and Pieces and, in a bit of delicious coincidence, Lumber Liquidators.

As the mail carrier handed me the latest batch of glossy enticements, she caught my expression and said, “Nuts, isn’t it?” Indeed, it is. So many catalogs make me slightly uneasy. Designed and distributed to entice shoppers into purchases running the gamut from glittering baubles to simple trash, they seem an unintended sign of retail desperation.

In a diseased and drought-stricken economy, with the threat of frozen spending on the horizon, merchants across the country could be mistaken for slightly desperate oaks, attempting to ensure their survival by raining down catalogs like acorns around our feet.

As small businesses and restaurants close in my neighborhood; as cities board up against violence and looting, I hear the rumors and whispers beginning to circulate. An owner sells a boat here; a person quits a club there. A friend gives up her gym membership. A neighbor decides against lighted outdoor decorations for Christmas.  A single mother’s job is eliminated; a family reduces their income in order to homeschool a child. In the silence, each fact drops with a sharp, disconcerting sound; we look up, startled and anxious, wondering about its source and trying to interpret its meaning.

In Washington, of course, things are neither so grim nor so fraught with anxiety for the senators, staff, lobbyists, and representatives who make it their business to shape the life of a nation. In cities and states, murmured platitudes and demands for obedience apply to the many, but not to the few. As autumn deepens, as the winds of desolation rise and the clatter and clamor of failing businesses and falling hopes echo across the land, they somehow manage to live in their usual ways.

It may be that the sturdiness of their office walls and the splendor of their chambers shield them from the sounds we hear. But autumn has come to America, and the acorns are falling. We can only hope that some will take root, and flourish.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds: Migration

Snow geese above a Texas rice field

Empty as the space surrounding it, the hummingbird feeder hangs: bereft of jewel-like flashes and the whir of tiny wings. The wire above the bayou no longer supports the flycatcher; the swallows, too, have flown.

In their absence, other birds return: the osprey to its mast, white pelicans to bayside pilings, teal and coots to the ponds. The cry of early sandhill cranes echoes from the sky; geese swirl over already-harvested fields of milo and rice.

Above autumn’s colored leaves and seeding grassses, the sky is filled with movement: thrilling in its inevitability, and heart-rending in its beauty. Poet Anne Porter has captured something of the risks, the rewards, and the natural rhythm of migration in her poem, “The Birds of Passage.”

 

THE BIRDS OF PASSAGE
You are the one who made us.
You silver all the minnows in all rivers;
You wait in the deep woods
To find the newborn fox cubs
And unseal their eyes.
You shower the sky with stars.
You walk alone
In the wild royal darkness
Of the heavens above the heavens
Where no one else can go.
When the fragile swallows assemble
For their pilgrimages,
When the hummingbirds
Who are scarcely more
Than a glittering breath
Set out for the rain forest
To drink from the scarlet flowers
On the other side of the world
With only now and then
The mast of a passing ship
For a resting place and an inn,
When the Canada geese
Are coming down from the north,
When the storks of Europe
Stretch out their necks toward Egypt
From their nests on the chimney tops,
When shaking their big wings open
And trailing their long legs after them
They rise up heavily
To begin their autumn flight,
You who speak without words
To your creatures who live without words
Are hiding under their feathers
To give them a delicate certainty
On the long dangerous night journey.

 

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