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July 2018

A Bird Nest & A Little Broken Glass

F9030A5F-1B08-41CC-9797-2CF93656F546“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

(‭‭Colossians‬ ‭1:19-20‬ ‭ESV)‬‬

Two boys are playing catch in the newly shorn forest behind my house. I hear the slap of ball on mitt, an indecipherable exclamation here and there. From the periphery of my vision, movement: arms waving, gesticulations, sighs. Then, laughter. The ball arcs high.

Poet Ted Kooser writes about such common things, yet under his pen the ordinary becomes luminous. An inhabitant of the Great Plains - a region that coastal elites often contemptuously regard as flyover country - his poetry shines a flashlight down into the people and places of the region.

It might be a fence that garners his attention:

The red fence
takes the cold trail
north; no meat
on its ribs,
but neither has it
much to carry.

And reading that brief observation or, better yet, sounding it out with an out-loud reading, you hear the tension of unburdened freedom and yet aloneness, a person striking out into the cold solitary and yet resolute, even defiant.

Or it could be a change in the weather, read by animals, as in

You will know that the weather is changing
when your sheep leave the pasture
too slowly, and your dogs lie about
and look tired; when the cat
turns her back to the fire,
washing her face, and the pigs
wallow in litter.

And so on, and so on. The geese are too noisy, says Kooser, and swallows fly low, skimming the earth, and the swan flies at the wind. They know. Kooser is saying watch the animals and they will tell us.

And that’s mostly what he does in these poems: he watches the human and nonhuman creation. Reads the clues. Catches glimpses of underlying meaning.

A siren. Two female cardinals sit side by side in a nearby tree, the bright red male nearby. Wife and concubine? Cicadas interject. Birds twitter. A jet descends, followed by the sound of a single-engine prop plane. Traffic hums in the background. The wind stirs.

In “In An Old Apple Orchard,” the wind is personified:

The wind’s an old man
to this orchard; these trees
have been feeling
the soft tug of his gloves
for a hundred years.
Now it’s April again,
and again that old fool
thinks he’s young.

This afternoon, the wind barely lifts his finger to rustle the branches above my head. He naps on the forest floor, like a cat splayed out and dreamy, his periodic twitching and restlessness moving the tree bough ever so slightly, his soft hand the lightest brush against my skin.

Or maybe Kooser animates an ironing board, as in “Song of the Ironing Board,” letting it speak in its steamy, heated used-up voice:

So many hands lay hot on my belly
over the years, and oh, how many ghosts
I held, their bodies damp and slack,
their long arms fallen to either side.
I gave till my legs shook, but then
they were up and away. Thus the lovely
soft nap of my youth was worn down.
But I gave myself and was proud.

And with that, the wind he stirred, like he heard in the iron’s song some longing for more, and brushed more boldly across my neck, threw a puff even in my face. For a moment, he thought himself young, and it April, and the earth new.

On two facing pages of Kindest Regards, Kooser’s latest collection of poetry, the titles juxtapose the epitome of the mundane: Dishwater. Applesauce. There’s more on the following pages: A Jar of Buttons. Sparklers. Old Dog in March. Shoes. Laundry. Ladder.

There’s poetry in titles, even in just naming. A blower interrupts my reverie, modulating with its fanning motion, with its reminder of work undone. Traffic hums constant beneath the twitter of the aviary. An empty, unoccupied house is a vacant stare into my backyard. The wind wakes, exhales.

Why poetry? Why something so small, so obscure, and so useless? Because, says Kooser, were he to comment on his observations of the ordinary, “the good works of the Lord are all around,” and the “cross is only God knows where.” The poet goes looking. We can look over the shoulder of the God-conscious poet and see hints of the divine in the stuff of life. Says Kooser, in “The Red Wing Church,”

There’s a tractor in the doorway of a church
in Red Wing, Nebraska, in a coat of mud
and straw that drags the floor. A broken plow
sprawls beggar-like behind it on some planks
that make a sort of roadway up the steps.
The steeple’s gone. A black tar-paper scar
that lightning might have made replaces it.
They’ve taken it down to change the house of God
to Homer Johnson’s barn, but it’s still a church,
with clumps of tiger-lilies in the grass
and one of those boxlike, glassed-in signs
that give the sermon’s topic (reading now
a bird nest and a little broken glass).
The good works of the Lord are all around:
the steeple top is standing in a garden
just up the alley; it’s a henhouse now:
fat leghorns gossip at its crowded door.
Pews stretch on porches up and down the street,
the stained-glass windows style the mayor’s house,
and the bell’s atop the firehouse in the square.
The cross is only God know where.

Kooser looks at the works of God dispersed, at the steeples and pews and bells displayed in Creation. It’s still a church. God knows where the cross is. It cuts across His good works. It stands over all things.

That’s why I am here, outside, in the humidity and heat of the day, listening to the slap, slap of a ball on mitt, to the planes overhead, to the cicada-cries, to the wind tapping on my bare knees, saying did you see, did you hear? Did you hear the sermon in the wind?


Oh, Mercy

EA62F4D4-ABFA-4FF2-8217-A216AB7044E7“The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.”

(Ps.‬ ‭145:9‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

Last night there was a wind off the Atlantic that hummed and whistled through the balcony doors. Then, a gust brought a flapping of the unsecured storm shutters where they had been hastily opened in a driving rain that greeted us midway down the coastal plain and endured well after our coming. I put down the book that I had taken to bed, opened the whistling door, and secured the shutter. Rain-chastened, I returned to bed.

Earlier in the afternoon we had watched a woman come to the ocean edge in a steady downpour, try unsuccessfully to open an umbrella, and finally settle into a chair wrapped in a towel to watch the waves slap the shore. Another couple were doing the same, both presumably drawn by something elemental, nameless, their thoughts ebbing and flowing like the tide, first expansive, then contracting, their eyes searching the frothing waters. Other than these, there were no others. The beach lay fallow.

In the book I lay reading, Draft No. 4, writer John McPhee’s memoir on the writing process, he says that a “lead” for a nonfiction article “should not be cheap, flashy, meretricious, blaring.” I had to get over that he did not bother to put “and” after the last comma in that series, something William Strunk would not allow. He is John McPhee, after all. I also had to look up meretricious, an annoyance. (It means “apparently attractive but having no value or integrity.”) He says the lead “should be a flashlight that shines down into the story.” That makes me think of the Psalmist who said ““Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps.‬ ‭119:105‬ ‭ESV‬‬). God’s Word, a flashlight to eternity.

The wind whistles eternity. Out in the dark the Gulf Stream swirls. Sand, the broken down and weathered granular fragments of quartz and other rocks and minerals, moves while we sleep, creeping toward the mainland, accreting on the sound side, eroding on the ocean side. Ocean dark meets the dark of sky at an eternally receding horizon. Out on the ocean a light marks a fishing vessel alone at sea.

A flashlight that shines down into the story? “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” is about the most promising lead imaginable. Questions form. Who is God? Other than God, what else was there before the beginning? Did God always exist? How did he create? What did he create? To what end did he create? The lead shines down into the great story that follows.

Under the dunes blanketed with cordgrass, there are warrens of rabbits sleeping, emerging just before dawn to nibble at the grass, flopping easily, silently until the sun rises. A mockingbird lets go songs in the night. The rain stops, but the air is sopped with water.

McPhee, on interviewing: “You can develop a distinct advantage by waxing slow of wit.” To some, I would add, this comes natural; others, it takes practice. One law enforcement agent I once knew presented as Mayberry’s Goober in uniform, yet wasn’t: criminals talked freely with him and were helped on their way to jail. I look around for a handy interviewee, yet all slumber. Slow of wit, I interview the night.

A feral cat plies the moonless night. Mice, wary, retire early. A lone beachcomber meanders in and out of the tide, drunk in thought. The light on the ocean blinks against the night. Where dark meets dark at the horizon, the dim outline of thunderheads lean in. Eternity whistles in the wind.

McPhee again: “Block. It puts some writers down for months. It puts some writers down for life. A not always brief or minor form of it mutes all writers from the outset of every day.” But you’re not a writer, you think, thank God, and yet every person faces block in the often small and yet sometimes incessant demon that says “you can’t do it” can’t get up can’t talk with that person can’t change one more diaper wash one more pile of clothes listen to one more unhappy client. Can’t. His advice? Write your mother.

Dear Mom, I write, scrawling my thoughts into the night, there’s a brawl in the sandy lane of the beach access road, and I can’t sleep due to the beat beat beat of the party next door, and did I mention that I took up surfing for my 60th (catch a wave) birthday and that I’m sitting on top of the world? And that the sand of barrier islands is a great metaphor for the of the temporal ever-shifting circumstances of life and the seagrass-planted dunes a hedge against the feral? I didn’t think so.

“Is it wrong to alter a fact in order to improve the rhythm of your prose ?,” says McPhee. And then, “I know so, and so do you.” Oh mercy. Chastened, I withdraw the light on the sea, feral cat and retiring mice, rabbits in their warren, and beachcomber that I conjured from the night. And the drunken brawl and party next door and surfin’ safari prevarication. I apologize yet add, “they could have been.” Part of me wants to rise out of bed and on a midnight walk fact-check this bit of prose before withdrawing it. Even ring up the local surf shop (hey dude) and reserve a lesson. Because it could have been and maybe is or maybe will all come true. Sigh.

I turn off the light. The other shutter flaps. I leave it. Yet sleep hesitates. I continue my letter to the night. I think about a light on the ocean, tiny in the darkness of sea, about a man on the sand casting great hopes against the flood of night, about the resoluteness of the few perched on the ever-shifting sand, arrayed against the fury of the waves and wind, about the near-silent footfalls of the feral cat and the shushed quiet of the dune mice, about the mockingbird’s operetta, about the great mercy of a God who shines a searchlight into our eternity, who is kind in all His works.

I omit the “and” before the final comma in that series, McPhee-like in my rebellion, before sleep comes.


Behind the Fence

IMG_1949“So they all went away from the little log house. The shutters were over the windows, so the little house could not see them go. It stayed there inside the log fence, behind the two big oak trees that in the summertime had made green roofs for Mary and Laura to play under.”

(Laura Ingall Wilders)

When we moved into our home over 33 years ago, there was no fence enclosing our back yard. The forest from which our subdivision was hewed lapped up to nearly our back door and, there being only woods and a country lane behind us, our existence and identity dribbled out into the world that preceded us, a world of forest life and piney woods that before that were likely a cutover or timbered woodlot that became farmland. In one place the land still bore the marks of its furrows. Our claim was staked, literally, by orange-tasseled wooden posts in the corners of our lot; an invisible and imaginary line ran between them and then from each of them on to the street in front of our home, a trapezoid imposed on an unruly Creation. With that, our lives were bounded.

We erected a fence only because of the arrival of our faithful German Shepherd, to contain her. We needn’t have bothered. Given her interest in what was going on in the home and not out, she lingered near the portals, her longing face windowed in the doors. But she died 21 years ago, and our children who, but for the fence, may have wandered off into the dark woods, red riding hood like, have crossed the imaginary lines and live outside the lines --- and yet, surely, they remain tethered here.

There’s not much need for a fence now. The deer easily vault the four feet, bed down in our pine straw, purloin our bird seed from the feeders, and peer curiously and cautiously into our windows. Our modest, malleable near liquid cat it gives no pause; in the morning she glides through its rungs effortlessly, melting into the leafy ether of the diminished woodland, unfailingly returning under cover of darkness, admitting nothing. (She learns things we cannot fathom. That, or nothing.) Squirrels chatter right over its heights. And birds, they have another universe, a sky unbounded.

This bounded land is ours, right down to its subterranean depths, to the center of the earth, and up to navigable airspace. If I wanted to, I could begin digging through the topsoil and, with effort, through red clay, down to bedrock. People may wonder about my large hole, but no matter. It’s mine. All mine. But I won’t do that. The most I have dug is about two feet into unyielding earth. Thus, my inheritance must remain largely untapped and unknown. That’s grace: I have been given much more than I can know or appropriate.

I’ve walked outside the fence. A neighbor, at some point prior to our residency here, placed an old bathtub in the narrow strip near the corner of our lot. Why, I don’t know, whether to water the animals or through mere neglect. Once, a gentleman who lived in the brick house on the country road behind us hiked to our fence and, inexplicably, cast something over the fence into our yard. My wife was on it. They had a discussion over the fence, one polite enough, after which he retreated, admonished. He didn’t do that again. We also had an ice storm once, and a tree fell across the fence. It still bears its wound but has sprung back, resilient.

Walking along the fence today, I run a stick across its wire mesh. It makes its own music, a bit dull but resonant. Just like people, all fences make different sounds. The one I occasionally slammed into playing dodge ball on the elementary school court clanged, a prickly schoolchildren minder; the oversize bars around the zoo elephant went thunk-thunk-thunk as in don’t-even-think-about-it; the plastic fence around my child-size barnyard animal set barely made any sound; the tapping of my wedding ring on the fence behind which we waited more than once is the sound of bliss, bounded by vow.

Some people don’t like fences, preferring a world of untrammeled unboundedness, much like the backyards I ran through as a child. Not me. Fences define. Behind them we refine who we are. Rarely are they impermeable: the immigrant deer and squirrels come, and visitors are let in. Sun and rain and wind touch us all. Yet without a fence we may forget who we are; with a fence we are free to become more of who we are.

“The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places,” says the Psalmist, and “indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.” Turning, looking back from the line of my lot, leaning against the fence, I see our place, our lives, our memories, our home. My children played in the shade of the trees that grow here, explored, pretended, and imagined. The fence reminds me that it’s here and not over there where life is lived. Life grows in a place, a bounded place, and is freer and more defined by its boundaries. It becomes home. And “home,” said Laura Ingall Wilders, “is the nicest word there is.” Life flourishes behind the fence. “Jesus, be a fence around me,” sings Fred Hammond in the old Sam Cooke song. “This is my prayer Lord that I pray each and every day/ That you would guide my footsteps lest I stumble and stray/ Lord, I need you to direct me all the way long/ Oh Lord be a fence all around me everyday.”

I let go the fence. I go inside. I look out the unshuttered windows of my home at the piney woods and pray, “Lord, be a fence around me everyday, Lord be a fence today.”


Rain, Delight

A53DAAB5-83F8-438B-9788-4A58BAAB79BD“You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.” (‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭62:4‬ , ESV‬‬)

We were nearly a mile and a half into the canyon when we saw the first sign of life. A Western tanager, a brilliant yellow bird with a red head and black wings, alighted on a tree branch jutting up from the canyon bank, hundreds of feet above his normal riparian habitat. He flew higher and, being an avid singer, chirped a plaintive song marking territory, before darting away up canyon.

It is the first day of our time here, and we began late, so the sun is high in the New Mexico sky and we feel it sap our energy. We’ve walked down into Frijoles Canyon of Bandolier National Monument, meeting no one on the way, down to see the Upper Falls, only there is no falling water. Drought lays heavy on the land, and the creek that the guidebook says runs year round has vanished, gone covert, snaking slowly underground, until the rains swell, until the summer monsoons come and the creek re-emerges, transformed. I look down to where the canyon drops away into woodland and see the muddy-brown flow of the Rio Grande, the trees a bosky ribbon of green along its bank, and yet here it is only dry, the green defiant but tired.

Fire is an ever-present danger, so the backcountry of Bandolier and campgrounds are closed. Just north, in the long inactive caldera of the Valle Caldera Preserve that we visited yesterday, the green observed from the lip of the caldera is deceptive: the grasses are desiccated, and the wind that sweeps across the plain could whip a spark into a hellish fire that would consume all in its path. The ranger in the caldera, a woman from Jemez Springs, reminded us of the nineteen firefighters who lost their lives there in 2013, overtaken by flames while battling the Thompson Ridge Fire, an inferno that at its height burned an acre a minute.

But the tanager is waiting for water, as are the towering, stolid Pondera pines that anchor the canyon floor, their reddish bark brilliant against a blue sky, resilient even in the parched landscape. As are the grasses of the caldera and its herds of elk and coteries of prairie dogs darting here and there, dropping down a hole here and popping out of a hole there, comic. And yet the land and its life, though conditioned to drought, are beginning to suffer under the effects of this drought’s desolations, a tragic reminder of both the fragility and resilience of life in the desert. We drink water and turn to go back.

“Take small steps,” she says, “as it’ll conserve your energy.” I do. I let her lead, as her eyes are sharp and concentration better than mine. I have been accused of daydreaming.

I have in fact been daydreaming, my feet moving but my head walking elsewhere. I confess I have been thinking of those great scientists of nearby Los Alamos, like physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, or Ernest Lawrence, who back in the mid-Forties, at the founding of the secret city, escaped the confines of the closely guarded community, part of The Manhattan Project, and came here, on horseback or on a road built by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930s, for solace from the conflicted thoughts that sometimes haunted their building of an atomic bomb, a horrible weapon to kill many to save many more. And so while I am here, the trail dust stirred by my every footfall, my thoughts are in 1943, stirred by those men riding horses through the canyon, comforted by the seemingly stable and only slowly changing nature of the canyon. “Science is not everything,” said the often poetic Oppenheimer, but science is very beautiful,” and so too is nature --- not everything, far from everything, and yet beautiful if fraught, riven by sin.

There were once people who lived in Frijoles Canyon --- Anasazi, ancestral people, native Americans --- who dug caves in the canyon walls out of the “tuff,” a soft rock made from compacted volcanic ash. We visited their leavings. On the second day we rose very early and entered the canyon just after dawn, walked two miles in, and climbed ladders reaching 120 feet up the canyon walls, entering some of the caves and alcoves of these ancestors. In the cool of the morning we saw life we did not see in yesterday’s mid-day heat --- a bright-eyed rock squirrel foraging for food not more than five feet from us, coyotes flanking a lone mule deer, hoping for a meal, lizards scurrying across our trail. A nuthatch on a tree branch. A flicker (or woodpecker), heard but not seen. We heard the distinctive, plummeting call of the red-tailed hawk. Even the creek in places bubbled up life, evidence that all is not lost and the promise of more to come.

Two days later, the rains do come. From my window on Santa Fe, miles from Bandolier, I imagine the tanager drinking from a pool, the pines drawing deep draughts through their roots, the coyotes lapping life-giving water from a now coursing Frijoles Creek, the waterfall now living up to its name, a trickle giving way to a torrent cast down the rock wall. Periodically thunder peals, like God’s voice announcing his delight. His rain, his delight.