Deep and Crisp and Uneven

Yes, Bostonians are emerging from all the snow and perhaps in a couple of days, we’ll also escape this biting cold, though we are quick to acknowledge we are not the only ones enduring this aspect of winter. The inspiration for the title of this post came while walking the dog last week in-between sidewalls of snow higher than my head. Many of us were around for the Chicago blizzard of 1969, or in several other spots for the 1978 event. But I’m here to say I have never seen this much snow, and yes, it’s deep, and crisp, but very uneven.

The country knows other things have been uneven out here lately, most famously perhaps our beleaguered MBTA. Earlier today one of our long-time morning conductors was heard to say, “Well, your pass doesn’t say you’re entitled to lights, heat, wifi, an on-time arrival or power: you get a ride!” I tried that out on another commuter with whom I walk the last stretch onto campus. She thought those things could be included in an implied contract, but I daresay at this point, most of us will just settle for the ride.

But tonight we have a new angle on the situation. The traincar I’m in is completely dark except for yellow hanging glow sticks on the hooks at each seat row: the kind with glowing goo that you might wave about at a concert, just a bit shorter and stouter. There’s a peaceful, settled feel to the group in here: we’d rather be seated and riding, I suppose, than totally squashed or worse, left behind. I can see some light in other cars, and we’ve been invited to move there when we lose a few passengers at the upcoming stops. But my two layers everywhere, massive scarf, and laptop will make the ride seem just another day. It is a bit rough on the task to transcribe today’s meeting notes, though.

Stay as warm as you can all!

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“…And We Wait…”

…at the station for an update on the inbound 7:07 train this morning, but alas, no information streamed across the neon-lit sign, nor radio dial, nor tweet nor alert of any kind. It was as if that train did not exist.

Upon return home, for where else was there to go? We still learned nothing despite expanding our channels to television and the MBTA website itself, motherlode of commuter info, or we wish it were so.

I think that 7:07 train went to Platform 9 ¾.

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“…As a Senior…”

The train is full and lumbering into North Station as Greater Boston continues to dig out and recover from one of the most classic nor’easters I’ve witnessed. From the line of shoppers in the grocery on Sunday, which extended along two perimeter walls, to the swirl of snow in the streetlight, we were pounded and then liberated as shovels flew and plows made the rounds. My town got about 30 inches judging by the immersed legs of our backyard grill.

The phone rang just as I entered the house yesterday morning after my shift at digging what I’ve come to call the “down drive,” that grassy area with a rough-hewn entrance off the street and where, for the last several years, a third car or truck may sit depending on who’s living at home or visiting. My view of snow removal is simple: be disciplined and make a plan. Usually my plan, born of Indiana winters, involves some amount of body flopping and wading deeply into waist-high banks in order to create space in which to put the snow you really want to move. This approach offers the added benefits of a change in muscles and perspective. A handy trick in this method is to use the shovel with a canoe J -stroke to push the snow along your side and behind you. This encourages a vision of open water which eases your mind while you literally drift away.

But I digress. I’d done my snow flopping, lying-in, shoveling and throwing. I entered the house pretty well snow covered and tromped over to the ringing phone. I waited, and then a distant and rather disembodied voice said, “Hello. As a senior, you are now entitled to a med-alert system…” I hung up.

What was this, I wondered.  Did someone see me lying down in the snow?

I was only making a snow angel.

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Those Cold Concrete Statues of St. Francis

“That ‘ll blog,” replied my husband in the dawn’s early light as we rolled down the ribbon of highway to the commuter station for drop-off and to head into the work of the day. Thus commissioned, I take up the task from my warm train car and think about the physical contraction of the garden supply complex we just raced past, one usually blooming with life three seasons of the year but now home to a small crowd of statues huddled together as if deep in conversation. Rather than integrated among rows of beautiful perennials and annuals, these tall statues of St. Francis, lover of gardens and animals, have sought refuge, or simply been stowed, in the center space of an outdoor portico. Usually they may gaze upon an abundance of green and life, but today, the outer perimeter of their view is barren instead of harboring fruit trees and shrubs. Do these little men guard what remains after the festive greens of holidays, for the shop mostly closed up waiting, waiting for spring?

Perhaps. But before we pine for those warm breezes and long days, we owe Mother Nature a brief shout out for the mild days now upon us. Yes, the shop signs still hawk salt, and wood for the stoves, and sand or grit for your paths. But the fields we pass further along are tawny, dry, and comfortable. The trees are calm sentinels and not wind-whipped, arm-waving dangers. The sky at 5:30 this morning was also calm and bright with scattered stars and a planet here or there. For a little while, at least, we may know winter ease.

Of course it may not last. The forecast could render these lines regrettable in only a few hours should a new front blow in. Plenty of times do we see that nor’easter pattern of swirling snow and howling wind hammering in on us and scattering us to our hobbit-like homes should we be fortunate to have them. But on this ride in, I am content to joggle past the bright sun on the blue water, see the power plant steam condense, and notice the marsh bird or two hunkering over a small pond, fishing for breakfast. Ice floes, they think, be gone! And they soon will be. Today I am not sure it is “bleak mid-winter,” and I wonder if we have the Francis-es to thank for this respite.

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Master Craftsman

Some readers might recall I’ve been traveling the roads and times of Port William and Hargrave through the writing of Wendell Berry these past several weeks. My latest journey was with young Andy Catlett in the novel by the same name: Andy Catlett: Early Travels[i]. I finished the trip which is the book as my commuter bus snaked across the river here in the city, and when I had to shut my eyes tight to blink back the tears at just one sentence, I again realized I was in the presence and gift of this master writer.

The sentence presents itself simply in a paragraph or two that describes Andy’s grandfather and his friends playing rummy in the back room of a store that is vacant, its owner gone to war. The men keep score and write the numbers, with which nothing is ever done, on brown paper tacked to the door. As I turn to re-read this section to show it to you, I realize what caught in my throat and burned my eyes was, in fact, only half a sentence.

As I watched, it came to me that they were waiting: Granddaddy and Frank Lathrop, each with a son in the army; Grover Gibbs, whose son, Billy, was in the air force; Burley Coulter, whose nephews, Tom and Nathan, had gone off to the army, and who now could hope that Nathan only might return; Jayber Crow, whose calling seems to have been to wait with the others. They were suffering and enduring and waiting, waiting together, joined in their unending game, submitted as the countryside around them was submitted. We had come into the silence that is deeper than any other-the silence of what is yet to come, the silence of one who is waiting for what is yet to come.

Perhaps it won’t surprise you to learn my undoing was “…Jayber Crow, whose calling seems to have been to wait with the others.” This small sentence sums up the friendship and love that stretch across time and place.  It reminds us how much we need others to wait with us, and what a gift it is to wait with others. Yes, Jayber, it is a calling. And waiting, and Wendell Berry, are gifts.

[i] Berry, Wendell. Andy Catlett: Early Travels. Emeryville Ca: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006.

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Wayward at the Year’s End

The year’s end is upon us. Colder temperatures seem to match a mood to ponder where we’ve been and what remains to be done. Whether the scale is international, national, local or personal, it feels as though many rocks are strewn in the way and, if turned over, will too easily show the unseemly sides of life, and with that, more than we bargained for, especially if we are only trying to clear a bit of the path.

One of the bright spots this month has been a re-read of Wendell Berry’s The Wild Birds. Over the weekend, walking across the open field, I could see in my mind’s eye Burley Coulter sitting in Wheeler Catlett’s office, talking about how he wanted to will his farm to Danny Branch. He describes the farm coming to him, and passing from him, as “wayward.”

It’s wayward, Wheeler. I knowed you’d say what you’ve said. Or anyhow think it. I know it seems wayward to you. But wayward is the way it is. And always has been. The way a place in the world is passed on in time is not regular nor plain, Wheeler. It goes pretty close to accidental…. I’m just the one whose time has come to turn it loose.[1]

So much of where we find ourselves might be described the same way, even if we think our path has been straight. Certainly the inheritance of land passed down through generations, worked by many hands other than ours, is wayward. We were born wherever we were born, and how we got to this place in mid-life, doing what we hope holds meaning and making a difference for good in the world, has probably been wayward. Maybe the census of the people riding this very train into the city with me today is wayward. Surely my travel from here to South Africa to Yellowstone and back again, all in the circuit of a year, and with many points in-between, has been wayward. Have any of the emotional journeys also been so?

Burley’s description of the journey of land as wayward has an innocence that is completely lost in the formal definitions of the word: “ungovernable, untoward, unpredictable.” Even obstreperous makes the list of synonyms. But here at year’s end, I want to shun these negative notions and see at least a few things as Burley does. Maybe he reminds me of my large, red-haired great-uncle Burnie, “kin,” as they say, on my mom’s side: a brother to one of two Kentucky grandmothers. It’s a simple fact that what’s come to me has had less to do with me than I think. This doesn’t give me a reason to not take care of it; instead, it’s a reason to cultivate some humility.

The bottom line, at the bottom of this blog at the bottom of this year, could be as simple as the fact we benefit from others, and hopefully others will benefit from our care. Wayward doesn’t have to imply irresponsibility. Maybe wayward is grace.

[1] Berry, Wendell. The Wild Birds: Six Stories of the Port William Membership. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986, p 122-23.

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“Have a Nice Walk.”

This was the simple greeting exchanged when my dog and I passed Leo and his owner heading onto the forest path for the foggy marsh walk today. We don’t think too much about these verbal hopes we pass to one another as we stand in the coffee lines or at the grocery check-out or even here at the border of woods and meadow. But more than a hope, a “nice walk” is exactly what was had today, and more. It was a stunning walk filled with silence and solitude, reflection and remembrance.

It’s a mystery why the dog picks one path over another most days. Today’s choice was to head through the tall trees, over the soaked undergrowth, around the sharp bends marked by downed trees, through the ferns, over the two bridges and up the “steep” path. Not a soul came our way until the very end and yet, it was companionable, the stillness. I could look up from the wet footing and find my thoughts on the needs of friends near and far, the world’s troubles and the bare Earth’s joys. I didn’t feel alone.

On close inspection, wet raindrops hung from the thorn branches, not dropping. Any animals who might have been around were tucked up out of the wet out of sight. Crossing the second footbridge one could pause and hear the brook chasing itself down the mild slope. How can there be so much wrong with the world, when in here, so much is right?

There’s a moment captured in “Thicker than Liquor,” the first essay in Wendell Berry’s book The Wild Birds, that is like this. Wheeler Catlett is with his father, looking with him at their farm and the work they just completed in the midst of a desperate drought. He writes, “It was a moment that would live with Wheeler for the rest of his life, for he saw his father then as he had at last grown old enough to see him, not only as he declared himself, but as he was.” Here in the old New England woods we can see this Earth not only as she declares herself to be, but as she is. Humans may make a mash of her, use her up, and spit her out, but she waits. Hurt, perhaps, but refusing, on the good days, to be defined by the abuses we perpetrate. Waiting, instead, for possible temporal recovery but also for certain eventual redemption.

May we be lucky enough, observant enough, caring enough, to think about these things and see them, not only when we walk, but as we work, and sleep, and God willing, rise to a new day.

1 Berry, Wendell. The Wild Birds. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1980, p.11.

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