Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Beavers, Oak Trees and Sacred Vows

For years now Daddy has struggled to keep unobstructed the spring that feeds the pond from which he pumps irrigation water. In the course of one night, beavers can build – and have built on several occasions – a formidable dam that nothing will bust loose save several hours of ax-wielding. Every winter he spends an afternoon or two, hunched against the wind, freeing the spring of its obstruction.

Just the other day Mama was relating to some visiting friends this less than bucolic aspect of country living. While listening to the story of how Jake the Wonder Dog swam to the middle of the pond, subdued one of the interloping varmints and then amazingly made the necessary mathematical calculation to determine the shortest route back to land, one of the friends noticed an incredible example of the beavers' handiwork.

At the edge of the pond was an oak tree, as big around as a grown man's thigh, that had been completely eaten through by the resident rodents. What was so remarkable was that the tree had not fallen. It stood suspended in mid-air, levitating directly above the stump from which it had been amputated.

A quick glance confirmed that the law of gravity had not been repealed and that, in fact, the branches of the tree were entwined with those of another tree. The embrace of its neighbor kept it standing.

The reason those friends were visiting was to attend a wedding – their own. In a few short days, they and those who love them had put together the arrangements for a ceremony to be held on the front porch of Sandhill and on Sunday afternoon, as the wind chimes sang and the breeze licked at loose tendrils of hair and the hems of flirty dresses, they held hands and exchanged rings and promised to stay together forever.

"What greater joy," the judge asked the two of them and all of us who listened, " is there for two human souls than to join together to strengthen each other in all their endeavors, to support each other through all sorrow, and to share with each other in all gladness?

"Love is stronger than your conflicts, bigger than life's changes. Love is the miracle always inviting you to learn, to blossom, to expand. It is to love that you must always return.

"You are about to make vows and promises to each other. Today, these vows are beautiful words representing even more beautiful intentions. My prayer for you is that as you live these vows over the years, the meaning of these words will deepen, and the happy times of your life will be twice as joyous, because you'll be sharing them with someone you love. And when life gets tough, it will only be half as hard because there is someone by your side to help carry the burden."

Watching their faces, I couldn't help thinking about that tree, the one the beavers had chewed and gnawed and torn asunder. It had done nothing to invite the attack, nothing to encourage the assault, nothing to threaten its assailant and, yet, it very nearly found itself felled.

Most of the troubles that come our way are not the result of anything wrong we have done, anything important we have failed to do. They are simply the result of living in what the theologians call a fallen world. Bad things happen to good people, beavers cut down trees. What keeps them standing, the people and the trees, is being close enough to allow those nearby to bear some of the load.

I think, maybe, that that is as good definition of marriage as anything I've ever heard: two people standing close enough to each other to share the load.

Copyright 2008

Monday, January 07, 2008

Auld Lang Syne

It is midnight. I walk outside onto the deck and lift my chin toward the sky full of stars. Like loose diamonds tossed across a navy blue velvet cloth in some colossal jewelry store, they take my breath away.

And when I finally release it, a tiny puff of silver floats away from my open mouth into the chilly darkness and dissolves like cotton candy.

New Year's Eve is generally pretty quiet in the country. More than once the clock has ticked (or, more accurately, the LED display has changed) moving Sandhill and the world into a new year without any notice at all. Not by me, not by the dogs, certainly not by the owl who lives in the branch behind the house or the deer whose Valentine-shaped hoofprints edge the dirt road like lace. We country creatures tend to have ended our days long before the countdown begins in Times Square.

This year, though, I have made it a point to stay awake, to be conscious and thinking upon the arrival of the leap year, election year, Olympic year. I have lit lots of candles, understanding something of the uncertainty of the ancient peoples who kept a fire burning through the darkest night of the year, and have given myself over to the kind of rambling contemplation that generally leads me to the surprising conclusion that I've not been paying nearly enough attention to my life.

I try to focus on this moment. I feel the dryer-warmth pass from the towels I am folding into the palms of my hands. I breathe in the scent of almond as I rub lotion into those same hands, dry and red from all the sink-washing of the "good dishes." I stop and stare at the Christmas tree, the ornaments round and reflective, the lights a stark contrast to the darkness that has quickly covered the day.

In Wales, the winter solstice is called "the point of roughness," an idea that brings to mind the fingertips of a safe-cracker or a reader of Braille. Inflicted tenderness.

Not a particularly attractive idea in a society where easy and painless are what people want in everything from plastic surgery to divorce. To intentionally court sensitivity seems to be the height of ingratitude for the various products and mechanisms and therapies we have devised to make life easier. Which leads one to the question, "Is that what life is supposed to be? Easy?"

I am sitting at my desk now. On the edge is a wicker tray I've filled with totems, objects that remind me of where I've been, who was there with me, what I learned. A piece of red coral, a seashell, a cast iron acorn that holds a key, a framed notecard that reads, "It will all be okay in the end. If it's not okay, it's not the end."

Right outside the window, the owl swoops close enough to rustle the too-long branches on the shrubbery and opens his mouth to the long mournful cry I have grown to love.

Time passes. Two hours until midnight. One hour until midnight. Thirty minutes. Five minutes. Ten seconds.

"Five ... four ... three ..." the voice on the radio whispers into the microphone on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. "Two ... one ... Happy New Year."

It is midnight. I walk outside onto the deck and lift my chin toward the sky full of stars. I hold myself tightly against the chill. A new year. I take a deep breath and raise a glass to whatever is out there. Easy or not.

Copyright 2008