Snow is in the forecast, yet the weather people hedge their bets, prognosticating winter weather so as to cover rain, freezing rain, sleet, or snow, to be vindicated in their predictions no matter what the Lord brings. A gray, cold sky is promising; even the birds have gone quiet; a blue shadow is over the land. A construction worker hammers away, and I hear in his frenetic tapping expectation. Advent.
I put the kettle on for tea. I peruse the selections. Opting for a more radical course, I chose Holiday Chai. I’d like to say I know what chai means but confess I don’t. I look it up. “A drink of tea made with cardamon and various other spices,” I read. Cardamon? “The aromatic seed capsules of a tropical Asian plant, Elettaria cardamomum, of the ginger family, used as a spice or condiment and in medicine.” A chai is also “a shed or other aboveground building where a winemaker stores wine in casks.” A red barn, perhaps. “Elettaria cardamomum,” I say, aloud, and my voice sounds odd around such a phrase so early in the morning. Chai Holiday wasn’t bad. Like drinking a Christmas tree.
The tree we bought a week ago is slurping water. Yesterday the well of the tree stand was dry. In little more than one day, it drank over four liters, measured out by the Diet Coke bottle I use to fill it. Then again, the cats have been hovering near the tree and have been known to drink its elixir. Cat chai. I need to check it. I let one cat out, with assistance. “You’ll thank me later,” I say. “Ciao.” She slinks away beneath the shrubbery.
I went out for a walk alone. No one was around. Ambition seized me and I began working through a mental prayer list, yet I continually veered off the path of piety. I thought about the pine trees leaning toward my neighbor’s home and the impending winter weather. I found myself walking down the dirt streets of Kampala, Uganda, with Ugandan friends. I circled back to prayer, only to detour to lists and plans and wonderings, mixing the impious with the pious.
I came in, settled in my chair, and read Psalm 121. “The Lord will keep. . . your life. . . . The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in.” The verse is an epigram in the front of a book I read entitled Picking Up. The author, anthropologist Robin Nagle, signed on with the sanitation workers of New York City for a first-hand report on their world. Her trashy book is staring at me from its perch high on the bookshelf.
There are men on the roof. No, I am not delusional. Men are extending ladders onto our high roof and cleaning off the roof and gutters. Their work boots clomp up and down its incline. Pine straw and leaves shower from the eaves. High in the pines, squirrels scurry from branch to branch, busy putting away winter stores. A male cardinal alights in the tree outside my study window, cocking his head to look at me before taking flight.
“Awoke early and lay still in the dark,” wrote E.B. White circa 1942, an unremarkable statement recalling an impromptu, unplanned stay in an inn found in a place with the unlikely name of China, Maine. And yet I identify here, 76 years later. I always awake early. This morning I awoke aware that for the first time in a couple of days I could breathe easily, having had until then a tremendous head cold. I lay there breathing thanks, grateful for the ingenuity of the Lord in giving us two nostrils, as in practice I have found that even though one may be occluded, the other will function. And that’s probably more than you wish to hear about that.
“Lay still in the dark,” wrote White, “listening to the singing in the next room.” Two nights ago, after a showing of Disney on Ice with a far younger crowd, I sat in my study listening to my 24-year old daughter sing. That is a beautiful sound, liquid and pure, seeping in between the molecules of the drywall. I stopped my typing so I could listen and smile.
That I get to be here, that I get to see and hear all this. It’s humbling, here, in the shadow.