To Rise, to Stand, and to Live

 

Lingering at the breakfast table, an hour or two of chores already completed, my grandfather folded away the newspaper before turning to smile at the small, barefoot disturbance running into his kitchen.

“Are you done, Grandpa?” Glancing toward the oversized cup resting next to its saucer on the table, he said, “No, not quite. Do you want a turn?” Without waiting for a reply, he pushed back his chair as I hopped from one foot to the other, filled to the brim with impatience.

Carrying his cup to the stove and refilling it with coffee from the dented aluminum pot simmering on the back burner, he turned and eased into his chair before carefully pouring a portion of the dark, fragrant liquid into the saucer.

Accepting the saucer from his hand, I tentatively rippled the muddy, steaming pond with my breath. If the coffee remained too hot for drinking, I would continue, breathing across the bowl until my lips no longer burned and I was able to sip. Then, my child’s share taken, I handed the saucer to my grandfather. “Perfect,” he’d say with a smile, finishing the cooled coffee in the saucer. Refilling it from the cup, he drank again: pouring and filling and drinking until the last of the coffee was gone.

Later, I learned a phrase that described this way of taking coffee: ‘saucered and blowed.’ However old or widespread the custom, it perfectly described our custom and our comfort: a ritual as much a part of our mornings as the reading of the obituaries.

His coffee gone, Grandpa always reached again for the newspaper, unfolding it carefully as he looked over his glasses at me and said, “Let’s see if we’re still here.”

Always, we were the lucky ones. Mrs. Gasparovich had departed after taking a tumble and dying of her injuries, and the nice Andersen boy who came through the war without a scratch had been killed in a tractor accident. Mr. Flanagan, who lived two blocks over and worked in the mines, died of lung problems related to the coal dust, and eighty-nine year old Sadie, famous for her cookies, simply had faded away. They were gone, all of them: but still we endured.

“Well, Sunshine,” Grandpa would say, refolding the paper a third time as he prepared to get back to his chores, “We’re not goners yet.” He always grinned, and I’d smile right back. It was a new day, waiting to be lived.

My grandfather’s sanguine approach to obituaries, so typical of the time, made it easy for me to view death with a certain bemused acceptance. I tended to think of death much as I thought of the ne’er-do-well neighbor who’d moved away to Nebraska. I didn’t expect him to show up on our doorstep, asking to move into the back bedroom, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had.

That was the way death arrived in our town – unannounced, unexpected and often unremarkable. No axe murderers or arsonists roamed our streets. We had slate falls in coal mines and accidents on farms. Now and then a child was thrown from a horse, or a hitchhiker hit by a car. Measles killed some, while others died of scarlet fever, pneumonia or undiagnosed illnesses that surely were cancer. Tuberculosis and polio thrived, and smallpox scars were familiar.

After the war and during my childhood, things began to improve. The mines became safer. Pencillin became more widely available, and polio vaccine arrived. Measles became rare, while the number of old folks increased. Over time, even the ringing of the telephone lost its ability to evoke anxiety. Long considered a death knell, its sound became ordinary and ubiquitous, part of the cacophony of modern life.

By the time my grandfather’s death knell sounded, life was changing. Rituals I cherished as a child began giving way to the less delightful routines of adulthood. Constrained by schedules, pressured by obligations, I carried my coffee in saucerless styrofoam and rarely took time to browse the obituaries. Death still wandered the back roads, but I paid him little mind. I was on the highways of life, and I had places to go.

Still, the pull of the back roads remained strong, both for the solace they offered and for the mysteries they contained. Anticipating a first foray into the bayous and swamps of southeast Louisiana, I hardly appreciated the depth of those mysteries: how easily beauty conceals the threats of the world, or how quickly the distracted and inattentive can be shown the error of their ways.

As we threaded our way through the steaming landscape of Acadiana on narrow, water-lapped roads — Grand Cailliou, Little Cailliou, Montegut — my traveling companion exclaimed at the herons and egrets fishing the bayous, and admired the great, unnamed grasses reaching to the sky.

As late afternoon sunlight began painting the grasses and birds with a deepening glow, we stopped to walk the narrow, vegetation-choked bank in search of vantage points for a photo. When the grasses parted, roiling and crackling, flailed by some tremendous unseen force, we caught only a glimpse of the slapping tail half-concealed by thick, heavy shadows, or the ripples it sent streaming over the bayou.

Stunned at first into silence, my friend finally spoke. “Oh, Lord,” she said. “Was that an alligator?” Probably, it was. Or perhaps it wasn’t. At the time, it hardly mattered. We backed away from the bayou with pounding hearts and trembling hands, sharply aware of being terribly alone in the midst of a world we barely understood.

Laughing about the experience some months later, I said we’d been street-smart but bayou-stupid. Eventually, I discovered Mary Oliver had turned to poetry to express similar feelings about her own sweet foolishness with an alligator.

I knelt down
at the edge of the water
and if the white birds standing
in the tops of the trees whistled any warning
I didn’t understand.
I drank up to the very moment it came
crashing toward me,
its tail flailing
like a bundle of swords,
slashing the grass,
and the inside of its cradle-shaped mouth
gaping
and rimmed with teeth–
and that’s how I almost died
of foolishness
in beautiful Florida.
But I didn’t.
I leaped aside, and fell,
and it streamed past me, crushing everything in its path
as it swept down to the water
and threw itself in,
and, in the end,
this isn’t a poem about foolishness,
but about how I rose from the ground
and saw the world as if for the second time,
the way it really is.

And that, of course, is the gift: to see the world as it really is. If it takes a second time, or a third, or a tenth, hardly matters. What matters is finishing the coffee, folding the paper, and rising again from the table or ground to affirm the wonderous, incomprehensible truth: we’re still here.

Despite our ability to engage in every sort of foolishness, our obituaries aren’t yet written, and the world is waiting. As Grandpa liked to remind me, every day is new: filled with beauty and challenges. We’re certainly free to insulate ourselves in the service of an illusory safety, just as we’re free to allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear or swept away by rising tides of irrational hysteria. But we’re also free to claim a different freedom: the freedom to rise, to stand, and to live.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Walden on the Wing

Broom in one hand and coffee balanced in the other, I made my way to the dawn-lit patio, intending to sweep up birdseed scattered by my messy eaters.

One quick sweep of the broom caused an even quicker flutter. Startled, I bent to look into the tangled leaves of a Hawaiian schefflera, and found the source of the flutter: a Gray Hairstreak butterfly (Strymon melinus) hardly larger than a penny. Lizards and snails visit the patio frequently, but I’d never encountered a butterfly there, so I backed away, put down the broom, and fetched the camera.

Perhaps instinctively, the creature had chosen the darkest and least accessible corner for its refuge. Fearful that the use of flash would send it flying, I took a few photos to document its presence and came inside. An hour later, the hairstreak still lingered, perfectly still, in the same spot. After two hours, and then three, it occurred to me that it might be newly hatched, and was drying its wings.

By that time, the sun was shedding more light on the schefflera, so I reclaimed the camera and clipped a few leaves from the plant for a better view of the tiny creature. As I clipped, the butterfly never moved, and the photo you see is the result. An hour later, it had flown.

Initially, I had planned to finish my sweeping and coffee drinking before visiting a local nature center for a few hours, but the time I spent watching the hairstreak put an end to that. No matter. As John Burroughs wrote in his essay “The Exhilarations of the Road”:

A man must invest himself near at hand and in common things, and be content with a steady and moderate return, if he would know the blessedness of a cheerful heart and the sweetness of a walk over the round earth.

The presence of the hairstreak, a creature both common and near at hand, seemed worthy of investment, however moderate the return. It also brought to mind Mary Oliver’s affirmation of Burrough’s perspective in her poem “Going to Walden.”

It isn’t very far as highways lie.
I might be back by nightfall, having seen
the rough pines, and the stones, and the clear water.
Friends argue that I might be wiser for it.
They do not hear that far-off Yankee whisper:
How dull we grow from hurrying here and there!
Many have gone, and think me half a fool
To miss a day away in the cool country.
Maybe. But in a book I read and cherish,
Going to Walden is not so easy a thing
As a green visit. It is the slow and difficult
Trick of living, and finding it where you are.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Watching a Christmas Star

Daystar
Like so many others, I sought out the Great Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in last night’s evening twilight. Less than a degree apart, their shining presence brought to mind a favorite experience from childhood, retold here for a new Christmas season.

Perhaps she noticed my absence. Perhaps she only felt a draft from the partly-opened door and rose to investigate. In either case, drawn onto the porch that cold Christmas night, my grandmother discovered a quilt-wrapped, shivering, and entirely unhappy litle girl huddled on her front steps.

“Good heavens,” she said.”What’s wrong? What are you doing out here?” Surprised by her question, I confessed the truth. “I don’t want to go home.” “Of course you don’t,” she said, lowering herself to sit next to me on the step. “It was a nice Christmas. Did you have fun? Did you like your presents?” Unwilling to meet her gaze, I murmured the complaint voiced by generations of children: “I wish it wasn’t over.”

A front porch in winter is no place for conversation, but my grandmother seemed lost in thought, and reluctant to move. Finally, she said, “But it isn’t over. Not yet. Let’s go in the house and have some cookies.” As she led me through the sea of relatives that had flooded the front room, someone — an aunt or uncle, or perhaps a parent — asked, “What’s going on?” “We’re going to the kitchen,” she said, and that ended the questions. Everyone knew better than to interfere with Grandma when she seemed bent on a mission.

While she brought cookies from the pantry, I filled my glass with milk. We settled in at the table,  and I waited to see which direction the conversation would take. “Did you watch for Santa last night?” she asked. I had. “Did you see him?” I hadn’t, of course, but the heap of presents in the living room provided all the proof I needed to know that he’d stopped by.

“What if I told you there was something to watch for tonight?” I stopped in mid-dunk, milk dripping from the bottom of my cookie. “What?” Busy with her own cookie, Grandma said, “Miss Luksetich says that if you watch in the east every night at midnight until the Feast of The Three Kings, you might see the Star of Bethlehem.”

I’d never known my grandmother to lie, and Christine Luksetich was one of her best friends. It was worth pondering. “Really?” I said. Wisely enough, Grandma sounded a few cautionary notes. “You have to look right at midnight, and not a minute before or after. It could be cloudy, or you could fall asleep. But if you keep looking, you might see it. It’s there.”

Entranced, no longer reluctant to leave Christmas Day behind, I headed to the living room and began picking up my gifts: more than eager to return home, scurry off to my east-facing bedroom, and begin scanning the skies.

I didn’t see the Star of Bethlehem that year. I didn’t see it the next year, for that matter, or the year after that. Given my grandmother’s fondness for Swedish folk tales and her friend Christine’s Croatian heritage, it occurred to me that their reappearing Star of Bethlehem might be a legend akin to tales of animals talking on Christmas Eve, or oxen kneeling in their stalls.

Still, I watched: scrutinizing the skies each year to see if something might appear. And then, it did. One night there were only the usual faint twinkles in the eastern sky above our cherry trees. The next, a brilliant star shone there: pulsating, glimmering — so bright it seemed to light the snow-covered countryside. For as long as I could stay awake, it never moved. The next night, it was gone.

With the deep, pure certainty of childhood, I knew that I’d seen the Star of Bethlehem. I told no one — neither friends, nor parents, nor even my own grandmother — although no one could have convinced me that I didn’t see it. Still, I was reluctant to be ridiculed, or tempted into an argument.

Over time, the memory faded, and my habit of looking eroded. Most years found me otherwise occupied in the days after Christmas — traveling, or visiting, or cleaning up kitchens — and if I remembered at all, I gave the skies no more than a cursory glance.

But one year in Kansas, halfway between Monument Rocks and the Cimarron Grasslands, I stopped to admire some cottonwoods. A brilliant star, created by sunlight shining through leaves, erased the decades. Remembering my vision of the Star of Bethlehem so many years earlier, I thought:

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Star follows us, just as surely as the Wise Men followed the Star?

This year, it was the same sun but a different tree which brought that childhood experience to mind, along with the fanciful, centuries-old legend of kneeling oxen and talking animals.

‘Fanciful,’ of course, is our polite way of describing events we imagine to be impossible. Unwilling to appear naive, stupid, or silly, few adults admit to clinging to such legends. Still, barns continue to beckon on Christmas eve, and hills laid bare beneath winter skies shimmer still, awaiting Bethlehem’s star, and those with eyes to see.

Says a country legend told every year:
Go to the barn on Christmas Eve and see
what the creatures do as that long night tips over.
Down on their knees they will go, the fire
of an old memory whistling through their minds.
I went. Wrapped to my eyes against the cold,
I creaked back the barn door and peered in.
From town the church bells spilled their midnight music,
and the beasts listened –
yet they lay in their stalls like stone.
Oh, the heretics!
Not to remember Bethlehem,
or the star as bright as a sun
or the child born on a bed of straw!
To know only of the dissolving Now!
Still they drowsed on
citizens of the pure, the physical world,
they loomed in the dark: powerful
of body, peaceful of mind,
innocent of history.
Brothers! I whispered. It is Christmas!
And you are no heretics, but a miracle,
immaculate still as when you thundered forth
on the morning of creation!
As for Bethlehem, that blazing star
still sailed the dark, but only looked for me.
Caught in its light, listening again to its story,
I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled
my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me
the best it could all night.
                             “Christmas Poem” ~ Mary Oliver

 

Comments always are welcome.
To read Thomas Hardy’s poem about the legend of the kneeling oxen, please click here.

Seeking Distance

Lake Hyatt ~ Tyler County, Texas

As conditions around the world have changed and phrases such as ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-isolation’ have become more common than any of us would like, I’ve found myself thinking again of a well-loved poet.

For Mary Oliver, social distance wasn’t imposed. It was freely chosen, and the solitude it offered became a cherished part of her life. Perhaps my favorite of her poems, “How I Go to the Woods” always makes me smile. It stands as an affirmation of one of life’s deepest truths: when in nature — whether that nature be woods, prairies, or a backyard garden — we’re never truly alone.


Ordinarily I go to the woods alone, with not
a single
friend, for they are all smilers and talkers
and therefore unsuitable.
I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to
the catbirds
or hugging the old black oak tree. I have
my way of
praying, as you no doubt have yours.
Besides, when I am alone I can become
invisible, I can sit
on the top of a dune as motionless as an
uprise of weeds,
until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can
hear the almost
unhearable sound of the roses singing.
If you have ever gone to the woods with me,
I must love
you very much.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds: Geese

White-fronted geese (Anser albifrons)

Named for the distinctive white band that surrounds its bill, the white-fronted goose commonly is known as the specklebelly, thanks to dark brown or black patches and bars that mark its breast. Not readily apparent on the ground, the ‘speckled belly’ becomes obvious when the bird takes flight. Given its pinkish bill and orange legs and feet, it’s not a hard bird to identify, but this small flock flying above the San Bernard Wildlife Refuge was the first I’ve seen since coming to Texas.

Specklebellies nest in the high Arctic before following the Mississippi, Central, and Pacific flyways to wintering grounds in California’s central valley, the Mississippi alluvial plain, or the marshes and wetlands of coastal Texas.The birds often mix with snow geese, or fly with assorted species of ducks; in other photos of this group, a few northern shovelers can be seen.

Decades before I experienced great flocks of geese of any sort, I became entranced by Frankie Laine’s “Wild Goose,” a song released in 1950. I drove my mother to distraction by playing their 78 rpm recording of it again and again, thrilled by the thought of flying with the geese.

“Wild Goose” ~ Frankie Laine

I suspect few remember Frankie Laine today, but his metaphorical goose remains a part of our culture, thanks to Mary Oliver. One of her best-known and best-loved poems, “Wild Geese,” celebrates that same harsh and exciting call: perhaps inviting new generations to follow where the wild goose goes.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 

Comments always are welcome.