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Category: nature

ordinary time

noddling bells of spring

deep in the recesses of my DNA, these knowings lurk. those little bits of knowledge slipped in once upon a time, those bits that order time, that frame the paradigm, the window frame, through which i watch the passing picture show called life.

somehow this week there was a whisper barely heard that told me ordinary time had come. technically, liturgically, it had come because the church i grew up in, the catholic church, ordains the monday after pentecost sunday as the opening of the long chapter of the year called “ordinary time.” and so, this week, as i slipped into this time, i couldn’t keep myself from considering the folds and undulations of just what ordinary means.

all around me, as lily of the valley sent up its flagpoles of perfume, as apple blossoms drifted down like vernal snowfall, as songbirds in feathers shocking pink and golden yellow darted in and from my feeders, i hardly thought things “ordinary.” the world’s in exultation.

and in my daily everyday, there was no relenting from the news that never stops and never slows to a trickle, nor was there quelling from the firehose of bumps and bangs that comes with loving widely, deeply. one night had me up till 2 a.m., making sure a young typist came to the end of his bibliography and junior theme (aka massive term paper) before we clicked out the lights. that same night had me dispensing nursing cures to a long-distance patient whose neck was in some spasm. all while keeping track of a train chugging to st. louis, where my sweet mate and familial co-conspirator drew more distant by the minute and the mile. by day, i somehow managed to turn in — on deadline — my own newspaper assignment, the first such one (a cookbook tale, complete with half a dozen lively interviews) in quite a while. none of this seemed “ordinary,” if by ordinary we mean “having no distinctive features,” as the oxford american dictionary tries to persuade us.

oh, around here, it’s distinctive all right.

i even plopped my bum on the old cedar slab i call my prayer bench, amid the ferns and bleeding hearts of my secret garden, intent on keeping watch on this so-called ordinary time.IMG_0172

lured by curiosity to the pages of old books, i dug around to learn a thing or three about this ordinariness. here’s a bit of what i learned: the church, in all her wisdom, divides the year into chunks of time (perhaps to fine-grain our focus, knowing full well we’d succumb to blur if not for demarcation). the church knows, according to one wise writer, “that human psychology desires the marking of moments.”

there are, apparently, two liturgical mountain peaks in the year, easter and christmas, each with preamble (lent and advent, respectively) and in between (here comes “ordinary time”) “the pasture between the mountains,” otherwise referred to as “vast verdant meadows,” of ordinary time, of tempus per annum (my church loves its latin, and, according to my resident latin translator, this literally means “time throughout the year”).

it must be the quiet season, the chunks of year when — inside the church and beyond — there is not the cacophony that comes with birth (christmas) or death and dying and its glorious resurrection (easter).

in one lovely meditation, i read that God, in infinite wisdom, invented the notion of seasons (not unlike the kaleidoscope that turns a notch and explodes in all new shapes and colored bits) as “invitation to reflection,” to jostle us awake as the all-around ever shifts. yet another meditation opined that God uses seasons to “translate wisdoms into a language of purpose for our lives.”

what that means, i think, is that it’s no accident that some of us walk around fully willing to be klonked on the head by the 2-by-4s of revelation that have us extracting lessons from earth and sky and trickling waters in between. it’s why a vine that blooms long after deadline (the week before thanksgiving, one year) might speak to me of undying courage, and the quiet of the dawn reminds me to settle my soul and breathe deep before the launch of day. it’s why the springtime stirs me full of hope, and all but insists i power up my rocket blasters.

ordinary, i read, comes from “ordinal,” or numbered, the weeks of the year simply counted off, one by one. amid the canvas of quiet, without profound distraction, our task in this stretch of time is to think hard and deep about the mysteries in the weft and warp of being alive. as this is the longest time of year, a full 33 to 34 weeks of ordinary time, depending when the feast days fall, i suppose the point is to settle in, sink deep, into the extraordinary work of living, with our attention meters cranked as high as we can muster.

all of that is literal, is what the books i sought spelled out. i tend to veer off the page. and that’s when i began to really contemplate the power of unencumbered ordinary. as if we’re given unfettered canvas on which to quietly and without bother absorb the sacred simple. the gift of being alive without all the inner chatter. the charge to scan the hours of the day for those moments that break us out in goosebumps. the blessing of deep, slow breathing. the chance, scant chance, to catch God in the act….
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of late, i’ve become intrigued by what i call the theology of the sacred ordinary. not the loud bangs and pyrotechnics, not the stuff that comes at the end of miles-long, desert-crossing pilgrimage, but rather the stark and quiet notion that we are living the Holy right now.

it’s the hush of a whisper, the percussion of the rain, those are the sounds that call us in, call us to behold the simple pure sacred. it’s the humility of the moment that belies its grandeur, its magnificent majesty……

and perhaps that’s the invitation of ordinary time, to dwell amid the plain-jane, stripped-down quotidian of the everyday. to awaken our deeper senses, our fuller attentions, to behold the Beautiful, the Wise, the Profound amid our daily stumbles and bumbles. to live as if the Book of Wonder has been placed upon our open palms, its pages spread akimbo. to extract, inhale, deep breathe its mighty and eternal lessons. the ones that whisper, the ones we hear only when we truly, truly listen.

what does ordinary time mean to you?

this morning’s writing came in fits and starts, as it sometimes does, as somehow this morning this old house clattered like it was grand central station, locomotives and the people who aim to board them rushing in and out the station, barely and noisily keeping to the clockwork schedule.

necessary harbingers

harbingers (1)

it hits me mid-morning, when i notice the light streaming in the grimy windowpanes, the panes streaked from winter wear and tear, when i notice the light has shifted toward its vernal blue. there is an undertone in spring, the light all but reaches out and wraps my shivering shoulders, the light promises: “you will breathe again. you will bask one day soon.”

so too the crust of earth. it breaks open in the early morning hours, once the thaw gives way, and only in certain patches, the ones where sunlight falls undiluted. that’s where soil softens, and insistent bulge of stem nudges through. not unlike that baby’s head crowning through the birth canal, that nub of newborn green exerts invisible, unrelenting force. it wants to breathe. it strains to make it to the light.

we strain too. we strain this time of year.

and so the earth and sky join forces, the earth and sky and their inhabitants, they give all they’ve got — full moon, sunrise streaks of tourmaline and tangerine, morning song arising from the robin’s throat — they dial it up a notch, a holy notch. they must sense that we’re inching toward end-of-winter full surrender. and if not for their employ, if not for their emphatic labors we might, well, shrivel into tight-wad commas, curl up and call time out.

to catch the earth in the act, in eternal sacred act, you need to pay close attention. need to all but rub your nose along the thawing garden fringe. but when you do, when you inspect the earth’s perimeter, the rim where underworld meets all the rest, you feel your heart go pit-a-pat at every rising quarter inch. in one wee patch along my bluestone walk, a patch where sunshine lands from 10 bells till sometime after two, the little nubs have sprouted frilly collars, have unfurled lemon-yellow petals, and emerged into a borderless swath of hope. they are the necessary harbingers, the first-line rescue squad. the ones the earth sends out to meet the winter’s end, and beckon coming spring. there they lie, morning, noon and even into night: my cheery patch of promise. as if the earth is sending up a lifeline, begging us to not surrender, not throw in the trowel, hold onto hope for just a minute longer.

at about this moment in history, this sorry moment at the end of winter’s hibernation and the daily dirge of downbeat news, when all the earth seems awash in gray and drab, we human species, we need a jolt. we crave a heavenly injection, a many-colored cloak to shake us from our doldrum. and, after these millennia of shared inhabitation, the earth — in all her glory — she gives and gives what we so deeply need.

earth, so often dispatched to be the messenger from heaven. earth, without a single word, pulses with life-saving, soul-searing homily and, in time, the hallelujah.

all earth asks is that we listen, is that we open wide the pores. earth and heaven will indulge us. will bathe us in a holy light, in skies awash in pink, in flutterings of wing, and stem and bloom that will not, will not, shrink from vernal task: to whisper the coming once again of hope.

holy hallelujah.

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what signs of hope have tickled your consciousness this week?

a cry for holy Earth…

earth from moon, apollo 8 mission. 12.24.68

A historic extraterrestrial sky—the Earth viewed from the Moon, Apollo 8 mission, Lunar orbit, December 24, 1968

a cry for holy Earth…

or might it be a cry from holy Earth?

i’ve been up since the chorus of dawn awoke me. the night, as it faded, grew thick and thicker in cacophony of high notes, the ones that warble from the breath of birds. IMG_9333

i tiptoed down the stairs, and planted myself in the awakening of the day. i watched the sun rays, inch by inch, rise above the fence on the eastern edge of my garden. watched the sunlight wash the stems and leaves in slant of incandescence. watched the shadows come. and the patchwork play: dappled morning proof.

the day’s upon us. and the earth must want to crumple under heaves of tears. the heavens, certainly, are crying.

that blue marbled orb above, the one afloat in sea of darkness, it’s holy Earth, the one small orb upon which souls live and breathe. souls delight. souls mourn. souls hold hands and dance. they collapse in sorrow, too.

that one marble in the universe, it’s ours to keep. it’s where the theatre of life plays on and on. from socrates to shakespeare and beyond. it’s held horrors — horrors beyond divine imagination: the holocaust. the civil war. vietnam. the awful wars — wars I and II.

but, too, and mostly, it’s been the stage for risings up of the human spirit. it’s where Gandhi walked. and the land where Jesus drew lines in sand. it’s where the brave souls of Selma gathered to march across the bridge. it’s where each and every day unnoticed acts of heart play out — the special needs kid charging down the soccer field with the ball, who then notices his little friend off on the sideline, crying for the ball, so he takes a U-turn, runs the ball to his friend and lays it at her feet, so she can score the goal.

every once in a while, the act of goodness is so spectacular, the whole world takes notice. (consider here the three who, on a portland train last week, rose up against anti-muslim racism, laid down their lives in the face of evil, and then the grieving mother of one wrote a letter to the President, writing of her son, “in the face of hate he did not hesitate to act with love.”)

it’s the planet we call home. it’s where our everyday acts of heroism and atrocity play out. it’s ours to keep. to tend. to till. to caretake as it takes care of us. we are its harbor masters and its holy guardians.

for me, it’s not only where i plant my feet, it’s where my soul finds breath, takes flight. it’s my cathedral, the sanctuary that taps me on the heart and whispers, God is here. did you catch the moonlight through the leaves? did you see the mama bird pluck the worm and fly it home to where her babies chirp? and what of the butterfly, the one that alights on the meadow rue? or the monarchs who every spring and autumn, criss-cross half the planet, returning to the very same tree, generation after generation?

those are the everyday wonders, the ones that unfold just beyond my kitchen door. i’m not even talking majesties, the likes of yosemite and china’s nine “most-sacred mountains.” the ones that just might melt me at the knees, leave me gasping to fill my lungs with breath.

there is so much magnificence i’ve not seen, so much i can barely begin to imagine.

but it’s been entrusted to us. all of it.

as i lay under my sheets, listening to early morning’s song, i began to cobble a wonderlist, those sacred blessings of holy earth, the countless wonders that set my soul aloft. for me, they’re all keys unlocking the doorways deep within, inviting in the swirl of heaven here on earth. they’re where God comes in, takes me by the hand, takes me soaring. where prayer and breath are one…

  • the pit-a-pat of rain, against the leaves, the roof, or window panes. no matter. it’s simply the susurrations of element to earth that lull me every time.
  • the roar of wind, or even the gentle tickle, the interplay of air and leaf. i’ve been known to stand stone-still, ears perked, hair awhirl, absorbing every decibel.
  • any day now, firefly flicker, original flash of wonder.
  • the “audible stillness” of the night, as nathaniel hawthorne so finely, so poetically, put it. that prelude to darkness just before the crickets pack away their chirp, or the cardinals offer up their closing notes…
  • butterfly couplets shimmering across a lazy afternoon.
  • moonlight casting midnight’s lace upon the lawn.
  • inflamed twilight sky, rosy-streaked, purple-bruised, ablaze with setting sun.
  • the lonely haunting cry of the unseen geese’s night-crossing.
  • resilient mama bird instructing flight, over and over and over.
  • those mysteries we learn from books: how baby birds memorize the night sky, fix their inner compass to the lone star that never shifts; the barely-conceivable workings of the monarchs’ thousand-mile migration, on wings that weigh less than half a grain of aspirin.

the list goes on and on and on…..i could — and should — keep a life list. in fact, maybe i just will. and in the meantime, i and all of us who know this earthly orb as a one-time gift from the heavens, we will rise up against the counter-tides. we’ll not let the sacred be wiped out by obstinance and ignorance. we’ll stanch the cries of holy blessed earth, apply the few wise balms we know….

please, please, add to the list of wonders brought to us by heaven and earth in their ineffable gloriousness….

and may your first weekend in june be blessed…..

earth from the moon

hang on, holy Earth. we’ll not abandon you….

reshuffling trees

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it’s not something i’d ever done before, not something i’d even imagined. we played a vast game of reshuffling trees the other day, as if our garden were a chessboard and white pine and oak leaf hydrangea were the king and the pawns.

img_8446we moved seven in all, including a willow that might still be weeping, what with all of the yanking and pulling and lynching there at the roots.

i watched from the window, rapt; my nose pressed hard against the glass. i poured coffee, sliced into cakes. you can’t be too fed or too quaffed when you’re wrenching old trees from the depths of the earth.

there are those who rearrange chairs in their living room, slap on a new coat of paint. we, though, are more inclined to what’s beyond the walls, under heaven’s dome (or i am anyway), so we did our shuffling out there, in the place that’s alive. in the place where shadow plays against leaves, and wind comes in whispers or roars. where chipmunks and rabbits have at their everyday’s salad. where whole families of birds have been known to move in their nurseries — and their flight schools.

i’m waiting right now for the christening that comes when the cardinals move in, come back, settle their crimson bums in the boughs, let out a whistle. let all the birds in the ‘hood know that it’s safe to return: the garden’s up and running again.

it was a reclaiming, this vast swoop of trees and shrubs and the bulbs that came along for the ride. our back garden had gotten a bit out of hand over the years, and then in the last few weeks, trees nearby had been felled, leaving big holes in the sky, in the earth, in our hearts.

the man i married, the very fine man who understands how deep these things run in my veins, he wasn’t about to stand back and watch me be felled, too. he ordered up — in a move most magnanimous — a repair, one marking the quarter century we’ve been blessedly married.

until the wheelbarrows and ropes and muscles arrived, i’d never quite realized you could rearrange your patch of earth quite this emphatically. oh, i knew you could move a clump of queen anne’s lace. guessed you might retrain a vine. but who knew whole trees could all but take a walk, shuffle a few yards to the north and the east, settle in against the old screen porch, bend their boughs just where we needed a shadow?

what i love most, perhaps, is that nothing’s been ditched. history has been saved. each tree has a story, and the story’s intact. right now, the whole crop is adjusting. getting used to new digs (literally). i’m left to do my part with the green snake of a hose, and its constant dribble of drink. rains came the other afternoon, not long after the digging and shuffling was done. i felt each and every branch let out a sigh of pure joy. each little leaf did a dance.

the bulbs will come next. i ordered up a delicate batch, in shades of white and deepest blues. i’m fine-stitching my garden, petit point of the earth. and my mama stopped by with a whole sack of birdseed, an apt gesture of welcome indeed.

it’s all sacred equation. with a fair dose of fairy tale, too. i’m one of those quirky old souls who still plays pretend, most of all when it comes to my garden. i see a meadow where you see a clump of old weeds. i make-believe i’m meandering through a secret vale, and all you  behold is a nook you might describe as a threat, with vines on the loose, and canes of old rose that dare to scratch you to shreds.

i hum best when my garden is whole. when i look out a window framed in nodding hydrangea, when a cardinal is perched on the sill. i need to brush up against God’s holy earth, the unending ebb and flow of wonder, of awe. of one season tumbling atop another. i need birdsong to perk up my soul. i need the soft light of dawn or of dusk to know i’m wholly alive.

and thanks to the shuffling of trees, i’m stirring to life again.

what stirs you to life again?

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what a week: new garden. day of atonement. manuscript dispatched to editor. all i need now is a long autumn’s nap.

holy ground

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from Pope Francis’ encyclical, June 2015, quoting Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew:
“It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet.”

in these hours when my heart feels hollowed, i find myself staring out windows, through panes of glass, into the garden, sweeping my eyes across the mostly fallow faded landscape. mostly, all i feel is empty. the thrum of a heart’s ache drowning out the usual song. but then, i fine-tune my attention, i look more closely. i am drawn out the door and into the rinse of springtime’s particular shade of sunlight.

it hurt, at first, to imagine this year’s garden absent its cheeriest animator, the old striped cat curled into his napping coil, occasionally opening an eye, giving chase to a robin, lumbering back to the spot where he crushes whatever nubs tried to grow beneath him.

but then i started to tiptoe down the bluestone walk. i plopped onto the stoop just beyond the kitchen door, beside the mailbox that holds all my garden tools. i looked for signs of life, of earth’s wintry crust breaking open, giving way, cleaving apart so the season’s first stirrings had room to trickle back to the surface, bursting forth.

more than any year in a long long time, this month of march has my fingers — and my heart — yearning to dig in the dirt. to brush away dried and shriveled grasses. to cut back stems and sticks that reach to nowhere. to nip and tuck and prune. to break apart the winter’s hard-pounded soil, to comb through clumps, sprinkle seeds, tuck in roots. to make way for the earth to bloom in the ways it so insistently blooms, hope-filled spring after long hard winter, again and again, year after year. no matter the pounding our hearts have taken.

it’s holy ground, the acres and acres that invite us in, to begin a close and careful examination. to witness the astonishments the earth offers up, offers forth.

IMG_7252and so, this Good Friday, this holy friday, i walk in silence, and i whisper the prayer of the earth once again unfurling in beauty. earth knows just how parched our soul might be in this the season of starting over again.

it’s the garden, the woodland, the gurgling of the winter’s thaw in the creek, these are the places that animate the coming back to life — of the earth, and the curled-up spirit within me. the one that just might find the courage to reach once again for the softness of springtime’s return.

i take to heart the words of dear pope francis, above quoting the patriarch bartholomew. i subscribe to the belief that God wrote the Book of Nature, and that each and every unfurling tendril, each and every bulb that shoots down roots and shoots up that periscope of green, each and every quivering of feather or leaf, it’s all here to whisper the presence of the Divine and Holy Wisdom. all we need do is plunk ourselves amid its quiet narrative, all we need do is pay attention, and the lessons and learnings will tumble upon us. breathe healing into our brokenness. breathe hope into our hollows. breathe, again and again, the story of resurrection, of life tiptoeing in to all the moments and places where we thought only death was left in the wake.

may this Good and holy Friday fill you with prayer. and with hope to wash away your deepest sorrow. should you prefer a more solemn meditation for this day of crucifixion, i offer this post from the past, the eloquence of silence.

how do you find hope in the shadow of your sorrow?

snowdrops

i heard the wind howl

blustery day pooh

i heard the wind howl, that shiver-your-spine whistle of late november, the one that tells you the world is being stirred. the one that always reminds me, always stops me in my tracks, whispers: there’s a force infinitely bigger than you, there’s a force to lean into.

it’s the sound of something’s coming. it’s the sound of batten the hatches. and yesterday afternoon it wasn’t much longer till i heard the words, “snow advisory.” followed by “three to six inches.”

once again, i find my soul pulled by the world around me. i’m just a puppet on a string, i sometimes think, and i let my prayerfulness be defined by slip-sliding myself into the Big Book of Nature, the one all around, the one that whirls and whistles and blossoms and withers, the one that drenches and parches, sometimes stirs not a leaf, and some days makes like we’ve stepped inside the waring blender.

when the whistle begins to blow, when autumn’s shrill cry rattles the window panes, seeps in through the eighth of an inch under the door (old houses don’t know from taut construction), i commence the pulling-in posture. i might take to the couch, i might take to the underside of the afghan. or, just as likely, i might press my nose to the glass. wait. watch. scan the heavens for sign of storm coming.

i suppose it’s a sign of my spiritual weakness, my saintly shortcoming, that i’ll take a dose of drama any old day. gets the juices rolling, i find. shakes me into my senses. heightens my paying-attention antenna. i pretty much dare you to see tree trunks bending in half, posing in downward dog of the woods, and not snap to salute.

but then, once i’m wide-eyed, i begin to go deep and deeper inside. prayers take off. i am grateful for walls, yes, and roof overhead. grateful, so grateful, for that box in the basement that cranks all the heat. i’m grateful for days that don’t demand i leave the house. grateful for 10-quart kettles that simmer with bones and broth and whatever the produce bin has offered up for the cause (the cause, of course, being kitchen-sink soup, a name that i now realize needs some revision).

once those elemental gratefuls are out of the way, i sink deeper still. as i scan the sky for sooty snow clouds, survey the heavens, i begin to survey my own deep-down depths. there is much down there deserving of contemplation, there is much coursing, much that begs to be unearthed, lifted, turned over to the one who stirs the wind.

year after year, it’s the first winter storm that packs the mightiest wallop, the one that throttles us back to our proper perspective: we are defenseless if left to our own devices. we’d be battered without whatever, whomever, blankets us, keeps us safe from the elements.

my second instinct on days when the weather report is written in caps, with long strings of exclamation marks, and maybe even an asterisk or three, is to make like auntie em in the wizard of oz, to head out the door to batten those hatches: anchor the bird houses, strip the landscape of soon-to-be-flying projectiles, slip the old glass bottles off the ledge in the summer porch. and, of course, dump seed for the birds, make sure the water basin is filled, should any one of the soon-to-be-scattered flocks decide a pre-emptive guzzle is in order.

it seems especially apt this year, as the landscape of the world at large and the more private one i know best are both so cloaked in sadness, it’s apt that the wind is calling us out of ourselves, pressing our nose to the glass, stirring the breeze deep inside, rustling up prayer. we’re about to be shaken into our places again.

november’s wind is the call to attention. we’d do best to listen.

and pray.

in searching for an image of winnie-the-pooh and the blustery day, i realized our well-worn copy of a.a. milne’s masterpiece, illustrated by the ever-charming e.h. shepard, has gone missing, which is a terrible thing to discover. so i made do with a frame from the original disney version. and i am so sad for the page that’s missing in action.

what calls you to attention in these blustery days of november?

cradled

sunflowers

cradled (v.) hold something gently and protectively.

that’s the dictionary doing what it does: defining.

and then we come to the part i always love best, the underpinning of every word, its linguistic DNA, its etymology, its roots reaching back in time, across oceans, deep into the vault of centuries past. and here we read this (from my friends at the online etymology dictionary):

cradle (n.) “baby’s bed,” c.1200, cradel, from Old English cradol “little bed, cot,” from Proto-Germanic *kradulas “basket” (cognates: Old High German kratto, krezzo “basket,” German Krätze “basket carried on the back”). From late 14c. as “device for holding or hoisting.”

in the sixteenth century, circa 1500, the etymologists tell us, the noun slipped into its form as a verb, and that’s how i like it best. to be cradled. to cradle.

i was humming around in my head, coursing the bumps and the vales of my brain, in search of a word that means “what’s keeping me from wafting away.”

“grounded” didn’t work because it sounded like i’d been sent to the doghouse. “tethered” came close, but only if you pictured a space walker tied to a lifeline, the sort that NASA so solidly builds, a lifeline that allows for floating, drinking in the sights of the heavens. literally. “tethered,” if you pictured a leash, did not work.

and then, in that way that sometimes makes you feel there’s an angel plopped on your shoulder, leaning in, whispering words in your ear, suddenly, out of the vapors, “cradled” appeared. and all at once, i felt my shoulders go soft, in that exhale of a way. when you whoosh out your worries and cares, and all’s right with the world, as robert browning once put it (“song from pippa passes”).

and so i am — we are all — being cradled. each and every day. breathing or not. we are cradled in great tender arms that hold us. i particularly love the notion from the german Krätze, “basket carried on the back.” breathe that one in for a moment.

right in here — the past luscious whirling days — i’ve been feeling a wee bit lightheaded, and my heart’s been pounding so hard i worry, as i so often do, that it just might give up the ghost. so, as if my life depended on it this morning, i pulled myself out from under the sheets. and i tiptoed out to the holy cathedral just outside the kitchen door, the one that vaults to the heavens, the one that this morning was lit by a crescent of moon. looked to me, more than anything, like one big eye winking at me. God’s eye?

and all around me, the dawn’s soft cool blanket fluttered, as if on a clothesline. the cardinals, cloaked in scarlet as always, were up and chirping away — it’s fairly hard to beat a cardinal out of bed. the dew glistened. my toes took a bath when i tiptoed across the yard to fill the feeder with seed.

i stood there breathing. feeling the arms wrap around me. winking back at the moon. then, i looked to my old shingled house, melted at the buttery light of the kitchen, glowing. sighed a deep sigh of thanks for the house that never fails to keep me safe.

i stood there for a short little bit, unfurled my morning vespers, felt the soles of my feet sinking soft into the earth that holds us, always holds us. and then i puttered back toward the kitchen, where a lunch box awaited, and upstairs, a growing boy slept.

as i poured my first mug of coffee, i stopped to drink in a clutch of sunflowers that peeked from the old chipped milk pitcher. i thought of the blessed beautiful friend who had scooped up those wide-faced wonders from the farmer’s market. and then i climbed the stairs to wake the sleeping boy.

i pressed my cheek against his, longer than i usually do. i drank him in, my sweet sleeping child. and, as i’d been doing all morning, i leaned; this time, on him. i leaned on all of these wonders — winking moon, chattering bird, morning’s dew pearled, old blessed friend, and miracle child — and fortified myself for the hours to come.

i was cradled.

the cradle is there, always there. if we’re willing to climb to the basket strapped to the back — the glorious, heavenly back — that carries us, even on days when we’re dizzy.

what cradles you? as in what are the wonders that hold you gently, protectively? 

every morning’s wonder: ululations at dawn

ululations at dawn

it all started because of the cat. the noisy cat who pays no mind to numbers on clocks. the cat who thinks zip of unzipping a yowl at 4:49 in the morning. he had an itch, it would appear, to wend his way down the stairs and into the murky haze of the dawn. and so he let it be known.

which is where i come in.

one quick glance at the glaring red digits, a flip back of the soft summer bed sheet, and before i knew it, my feet hit the floorboards and padded straight toward the light and the door and the dawn.

wasn’t long — no more than the time it takes for one brain wave to leap across the synaptic gulch that comprises the wiring of the waking-up human — till i noticed how noisy it was. all around. coming from every nook and cranny of the great beyond.

it was the ululations of the dawn, and it knocked me upside the head, the wonder of birdsong at its thickest, in that one short interlude when first light is licking the sky, and most of the world — or at least the folks in my neck of the woods — are fast asleep, just beginning to crank up the dreams in that pre-alarm-clock revving of REM, the rapid-eye-movement cycle of slumber when visions are spun, and spun wildly.

there would be no REM for me this day. i blundered into something far more mesmerizing.

i followed the cat straight out the door, me and my flimsy old nightshirt. and there i stood, drinking it in. or trying to anyway. truth is, i could barely swallow a drop of it. i just let is wash over and over me. a blur of glorious sound: cheeps and warbles and trills. vowels banging hard up against consonant blends. (i’m certain audiologists have names for these audio bit-lets, but i call them simply the wonder of dawn measured in decibels.)

i tried, hard as i could, to pick it apart. to pluck one note from one bird that i knew: the cardinal’s cheer-cheer-cheer, the rise and the fall of the wren’s blessed warble. but mostly i just marveled, drank in the whole.

wasn’t long before i imagined the whole of them — the flocks and flocks who must have been darting among the summer’s greenery, or perched at the ends of boughs, filling the dawn with their music — in classic morning silhouette: standing before the bathroom mirror, faces creased from a long night’s slumber, eyelids still at half-mast, warbling away at the dawn. as humans have been known to do as they run the tap, await warm water for the day’s first splash. smear the squiggle of toothpaste clear across the toothy bristles. only i pictured zillions of birds frothing away at the morning sink, clearing their throats, unfurling their dawn song (minus the toothpaste).

that made me laugh. but then i got curious. so, once the groundswell of sound slowed to a trickle (and it didn’t last long, this ephemeral chorus, which only makes it all the more urgent), i pulled a few books off my shelves, and turned a few pages, studying the birdsong of dawn and why it’s so very raucous.

here’s a bit of the wonder that i discovered:

birds do their warbling because their little sound box, called a syrinx, isn’t placed up high in the throat, as is a human’s. rather, their syrinx is down low in the airway, at the juncture of the two bronchi, or tubes that funnel air into and out of the lungs. there, it allows the birds not one but two sources of sound, the air flowing in and out of each of their little bird lungs. and the membranes of each bronchus — think strings of the violin, or holes in a flute — allow separate sounds to be made.

and perhaps you’ve wondered how it is that the wren can yodel for minutes on end without keeling off her branch from sheer lack of oxygen? well, she and all her avian choristers have mastered the art of the mini-breath, each one timed between notes. so you can’t tell she’s filling her lung-lets, but in fact she is.

the burning question for me was this: why are the birds at their operatic noisiest at dawn, and only dawn?

the answer, one of those ones that melts me off my chair, and gives rise to goosebumps at the thought of the Brilliance who dreamed this all up: the birds sing at dawn because it’s when sound travels best. scientists who measure these things determined that sound at the dawn is 20 times as effective as midday sound, when the cacophony of life makes for stiff aural competition.

reason no. 2: other than belting out their tunes, there’s not much else for birds to do at dawn, according to ornithologists who ponder these things too. light intensity is low, so it’s a bit of a chore for a bird to forage for breakfast. because night temperatures drop, the insects — aka breakfast — are hunkered down on the ground, amid the relative warmth of grasses and dirt, and not yet available for plucking. so why not sing a morning tune? let the neighbor birds know you’ve made it through the night, and just might be available for a little daybreak dalliance, if you know what i mean…..(insert bird wink here).

it gets better: birds adapt their songs to whatever will travel best in their native habitat. so, the birds of the forest, where trees are thick and sound bounces off leaves, go for short bursts of aural punctuation. birds of the great plains opt for a buzz that clears across the wide-open canvas of wheat fields and pastures. and if a bird calls home some place near rushing waters, it will dial up its frequency to be heard above the aqueous roar.

before we wend to a close, consider this magnificent passage from british nature writer gareth huw davies, for sir david attenborough’s PBS series, “the life of birds”:

The vocal ability of birds has inspired poets and musicians, from Chaucer to Wordsworth, from Handel to Respighi. Birdsong can be a natural phenomenon of intense beauty. But our enjoyment is incidental to the main purpose, which is one bird communicating with others. Birds became the world’s master musicians in order to convey to potential mates, rivals and predators all the important things they have to say, from “Clear off!” to “Come on!”

And their songs have been shaped by their environment, just as the rap musician of New York delivers a different “tune” to the yodeller in the Swiss mountains. The musical detail would have impressed the great composers. The nightingale, for example, holds up to 300 different love songs in his repertoire. The canary may take 30 mini-breaths a second to replenish its air supply. The cowbird uses 40 different notes, some so high we can’t hear them. The chaffinch may sing his song half a million times in a season.

Indeed, British musician David Hindley slowed bird song down and discovered parallels between the skylark’s blizzard of notes and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; between the woodlark’s mind-numbingly complex song and J.S.Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues. It changes its tune according to the rules of classical sonata form.

by 5:15, a far-too-brief 26 minutes after i’d stumbled into it, the bird sonata had quelled, and in rolled the soundtrack of civilization — the cars rumbling, trains bellowing, and far too soon, the early-bird lawn mowers coughing and spewing and disturbing the peace.

i miss the morning song already. but i’m betting on my wide-eyed cat to wake me on the morrow, so once again i’ll launch my sunlit hours on the wings of the glorious chorus of daybreak.

however sleepy i’ll be for the rest of the day, it’s so deeply worth it.

if you, too, are curious about birdsong, take a peek at this fine primer. or this guide to north american songbirds, with marvelous lists of birds based on whether they sing one or two or three notes.

and do consider shuffling out of doors at dawn to see what you might hear. know that you won’t be alone. me and my nightshirt will be there too. 

and how do you launch your day with your daily dose of wonder?

bathed in birdsong & other stirrings of mama earth

crocus stirrings

dispatch from 02139 (in which, despite snow clouds that scuttle across the sky, the determined among us set out to scratch up vernal offerings….)

all week, at a mere 20 minutes past the hour of five, i’ve been catapulted from my slumbers.

once or twice by the fat cat launching into his basso morning rumble (always a sign of impending doom and certain need for rug-cleaning spritz-spritz-spritz). but more often, and more insistently, it’s the mad chorus of matin birdsong that up and lifts me from my lumpy pillow, and sets me sailing for the windows.

there, ear to glass, i drink in all the early-morning world of cambridge has to offer me. i marvel that amid the cobblestone streets, and the colonial lean-to’s, amid the screech of 21st-century brakes and the occasional ambulance roaring by, whole colonies of bird have fluttered in, hunkered down, and think nothing of opening wide their throats and letting loose with heaven’s warble.

there are those in this house who grumble thusly, who reach for my swift-abandoned pillow and make of it a helmet, a sound-shielding barrier, one that muffles pre-dawn birdsong.

ah, but that is not me.

no, i’m the girl who drinks it in like coca-cola through a straw.

i was, you see, born and raised on bird.

(that cinematic signature of suburban america circa 1960, the family movie, regularly took time out at our house from birthday party, graduation, backyard frolic to pan up to the trees where, for a good five-minute stretch, mr. scarlet tanager, or sir indigo bunting would hold the frame, while abandoned children must have wondered why their markings ever paled to celestial feather. as recently as yesterday, The Original Mama Nature, as we sometimes call my mama, sent out one of her “nature notes” informing all five of her brood — spread all across the continental US — that “The Ducks are back,” as urgent a missive as you’ll ever get from her.)

when you grow up knowing in a blink the orange breast of the robin, the red flash of cardinal, and the iridescent blue of said bunting, you tend to not only pay attention but feel the hard-wired zing of ornithological amazement, in whatever form it brushes, wafts or flutters by you.

and this week, the signal that it sent — loud and clear and unshakably — was that the winter world would soon be melting, and once again the globe would spin toward full-throttle rebirth.

the birds don’t always wait for mercury to make it comfy cozy. they’re impelled by slant of light, by intensity of wattage. and, according to their inner-clickers, it’s high time to get this springtime show on the road.

a girl who pays attention has little choice but to play along. so one of the amusements with which i amuse my wandering eye is one i call spot-the-crocus. as i dilly-dally off to reading room or lecture hall, i pay no mind to cracks and heaves in the sidewalk (always a dangerous distraction). rather, i scan the sidelines in search of anything but brown or gray or muddy-olive-drab.

and, more and more these days, i am hearing the bing-bing-bing of hitting the crocus jackpot. now that the last mounds of snow are melting into oblivion, the sweet nodding purple heads are rising up and offering resurrection. “you’ve made it through the long, hard winter, through howling winds and winter boots that weighted down your feets like so many pounds of ore,” they seem to whisper. “’twill soon be the day when you can bound down the stairs and out the door in little but a sweater. a pink sweater, even. rather than the charcoal gray and black you’ve worn since winter solstice.”

i am feeling hope. but this year, too, with warming winds, and vernal light, comes a hard-to-ignore wince deep down inside. we’ve been told that it’s a common ail of spring for all the nieman fellows. our year of sumptuous living is, undeniably, inching toward the final chapters. and at the speed with which the weeks whiz by, inching is hardly the proper verb. more like avalanche-ing. swallowing us whole. leaving us little time to gasp, to catch our breath, to realize just how soon we’ll be grabbing for the rolls of tape, packing boxes filled with books, and heading home to sift for months through these holy blessed hours, and try to figure out how in the world to live up to all we’ve learned and dreamed and promised.

but that’s the puzzle for another day.

today, this holy silent day of somber friday, i will go deep within. i will wrap myself in sunlight and birdsong, i will watch the sky, and feel the rumble of the earth beneath my knees. i will find my way to the monastery. i will unfurl prayer. and, as i always do, i will let the noisy flocks carry off my hopes and fervent whisper to that up-high station on its way toward heaven.

do you, too, scan high and low for peeps of spring? and how do you go still — if you do — as we enter into these holiest of days in the roman christian calendar? 

 

prayer for a camper

dear mother God of woods and tangled roots, of see-through lakes, and dawn’s first light, of moonbeams drooling on the meadow grass, and birdsong waking up the day,

i have delivered to you my precious child, my tender heart, brave heart. he is yours now, for two whole weeks, yours to hold, to guide along the trails in deepest darkest night, yours to wrap your arms around in those shaky moments just before the sleep comes, when thoughts drift home, when home feels faraway and hollow fills the void.

he is yours now as he leaps off the dock into soft-bottomed sandy swimming hole. he is yours as he climbs the ropes and buckles onto that shiver-me-timber woodsy trick, the zip line. he is yours as he climbs endless dunes and jumps for dear life. hold those ankles straight, dear mother watcher God. keep those bones from cracking into twos. keep bees away, and while you’re at it, please shoosh the darn mosquitoes. ditto poison ivy.

perhaps, too, you could drift down into the dingy cabin — he’s in no. 6, in case that helps — and tap him lightly on the shoulder, whisper in his ear: “don’t forget the sunscreen. slather on the OFF!” and when he loses things, say, the water bottle, or the flashlight, maybe just maybe you could guide his searching little hand to the very secret spot where said essentials are playing hide-n-seek.

dear mother God of star-lit dome, of lake breeze, of rustling in the cottonwoods, you now tend my first-time camper, you hold him to your moss-carpeted bosom. i pray you open up the woods to him, reveal to him the mysteries of your quiet ways, your crashing-booming majesty.

for two short weeks, we’ve unplugged him just for you. he’s all yours now. he has drawn in a deep cleansing breath, shaken off his deep-woods worries, and surrendered to all the glories you have to offer him.

tap his tender heart. unspool for him the depth of confidence that’s buried deep down where he doesn’t always know it dwells. allow him to emerge from these woods, from these weeks along that crystal lake, from romping with the troupes of boys and abiding by generations-old rules of woodsmen’s games, knowing just a bit more solidly how much he has to carry into this blessed world.

if so inclined, please be there when the hour comes, at last, for him to light his torch, and lift it high — to illuminate not merely his way, but, as well, the twisting paths of all of those who walk beside him.

hold him tight, dear mother God, when he needs a squeeze, and be the wind beneath his wings when he glances down and sees that he is soaring, gliding where the eagles glide.

oh, and one last thing while i’m on my knees here begging: see if, just once or twice, you can make him reach for the milk jug  — instead of glow-in-the-dark “bug juice,” a vat of red dye no. 2 — when it’s time to fill his lunchtime glass.

that’s pretty much the whole of it from here on the home front, where i’ve nothing left to do, but turn to you, and trust with all my heart.

thank you mama God, God of dappled afternoon light, God of pit-a-pat of summer rain, God who wraps the campers in her arms, and holds them safe and blessed ever after.

so begins my two-week vigil, my prayer for my little one’s safe keeping. it wasn’t a trip without tears, wasn’t one that did not demand an oversized butterfly net to catch the wayward worries. but once there, along torch lake in northern michigan, he allowed the pure pine-woods air to fill his lungs, and animate his every step. he found particular joy in discovering his big brother’s name painted onto a plaque that hangs not far from his cabin, a place he’ll pass morning, noon, and night as he passes to the dining hall, and lakeside campfire. i like to think it’s a bit of a woodsy patron saint, keeping watch on the little one. right in here, we’ll take all the eyes we can muster. be safe, brave camper. but even more: be joy-filled.