Monday, January 31, 2011

Cold Comfort

Ice hung off the eaves of the carport like jagged dragon teeth in a pre-schooler’s drawing of scary. Stiff and unresponsive to the wind that came rushing across the field and crying like a banshee, the ice-covered limbs of the sycamore tree could have been the dragon’s claws, sharp and pointed and crooked at awkward angles. Standing in the doorway, huddled inside my overcoat, I would have welcomed a quick puff of the dragon’s fire breath – just enough to break the chill until I could get into the car.

I nearly slipped going down the steps, muttered something unintelligible even to myself. I cranked the car, turned on the wipers, discovered that what I thought was water on the windshield was, in fact, ice. I turned on the defroster and waited. The glass got warmer; I didn’t. I tucked my gloved hands into my armpits. It didn’t help.

Once on the road, the tires crunched the ice and the frozen ground. The car seemed to move forward without traction, like a train skidding smoothly down a rail. The scenery was all white. I was in a lace bubble.

That was two weeks ago.

The deck was still wet with two days’ rain and the ground was soggy and slick. The wind was whipping around like a lariat in the hands of a rodeo cowboy and the sycamore tree limbs jerked back and forth in a St. Vitas dance of erratic jolts and twitches. Strands of my hair got caught in the free-for-all, snagged in my eyelashes, nearly inhaled as I gasped at the gust that rushed under the carport just as I opened the door.

When I turned on the windshield wipers they swiped easily across the cellophane-thin layer of water, leaving the glass completely clear, but for the thin squiggles sliding down the far sides like red wigglers out of a bait bucket. The road was muddy; the tires sank in the ooze of ruts already eight or ten inches deep. It made me think of the valley a four-year-old’s finger makes in still-warm cake icing.

That was this morning.

Winter. Not my favorite season. It is cold and dark. It is claustrophobic. It is too long. But it has its moments.

Like last Sunday afternoon. I could stand the incarceration no longer and went to get the dogs. They were as eager to get outside as was I and the three of us set out like kids at recess, eager and breathless. The breeze was a tad cool, but gentle, licking at my face and their fur. The few bird calls we heard came darting through the crisp air in irregular rhythms and the winter light, that angled laser that can transform frost directly into mist without becoming water, was so sharp that it made everything in the landscape look as though it were drawn by a pin-prick sharp No. 2 pencil.

I found a dead bird in the middle of the road and stopped to be amazed at the infinitesimal number of feathers, each one shaded in three different colors, that came together to make three broad horizontal bands. I found a scrub oak, no more than three feet high, growing in the sandy ditch and sprouting tiny acorns the size of a thimble. The dogs found an armadillo to chase into the branch, only to lose as it burrowed into perfectly round hole, and still came away with their tongues wagging in that gleeful, generous dog way.

It is four miles to the highway and back. (The dogs don’t go quite that far; they stop when they get in sight of the asphalt – something telling them that they don’t belong there – and wait for me to circle around.) It is a good distance for walking and, on this day, for finding things. I found beauty in death and promise in smallness. The dogs found joy in the unattainable. And we all found a vision of winter that was something more than cold.

Winter. Not my favorite season. But, like everything, it has its moments.

Copyright 2011

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Around and Around

There’s a church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that used to be a shopping mall. I’ve never seen it, but I can imagine that its architecture isn’t exactly what one would call traditional. I understand, in fact, that the sanctuary – which they may not even call the sanctuary – is sort of, well, round. Not semi-circular with two or three aisles leading up to the pulpit like sun rays on an elementary school bulletin board, but round with chairs or pews placed all the way around the platform where the pastor stands. Interesting.

As I said, I’ve never seen this church, but I know a good bit about it because I subscribe to its podcast and listen to its pastors’ sermons on my iPod while running on the treadmill. I was listening just last week, in fact, when I realized that I’d downloaded not just an ordinary Sunday morning sermon, but the Christmas Eve sermon. I knew this because the pastor started by addressing the parents in the congregation who were obviously a little concerned about having their little ones in "big church."

"Don’t worry," he told them in his soothing voice, "if they’ve run off. We built this place in a circle for just that reason: eventually they will make it back around."

There was laughter, some of it forced, some of it relieved.

"And when they do make it back around," he continued, "they will be tired."

I cannot say that I remember anything he said for the next couple of minutes. I cannot say that I remember picking up my feet and running, though I am sure that I did because I did not fall. All I can remember is the feeling of being hit in the chest by a wave I didn’t see coming, the realization of just having heard something of the most profound importance.

I could see those children – dressed in warm Christmas outfits mailed to Michigan by their grandparents, cheeks the color of camellias, smiles open and breathy. They were laughing at the sheer joy of movement, pumping their chubby arms and looking around to make sure that everyone else was running, too.

Running is such a natural thing. We learn to crawl. We learn to walk. We learn to run. We learn that running is faster than walking. We learn that the best method for getting away from something we want to avoid is running.

What too many of us don’t learn is that life, like the church in Michigan, is built in a circle. We can run – from decision, from responsibility, from fear or pain –, but eventually we will make it back around. No matter how many times we make the loop, no matter how fast or slow we run, no matter how many water stops we make along the way, eventually (Two days? A month? A year? Ten years?) we will be back where we started and we’re going to come face to face with that from which we ran.

And we are going to be tired.

Which could be a bit disconcerting given the fact that the decision/responsibility/fear has just been sitting there waiting all this time.

Except for one thing: We’re all children. Every last one of us. And we know what to do when we’re tired. We know where to go when every last dream has died and every last ounce of hope has leached away. We know where to find arms big enough to hold us and all our fatigue and failures. And we know that it is in quietness and trust that we will regain our strength, the strength to stop running.

Sometime into the Christmas Eve sermon, sometime into my run I noticed that the background rumble had hushed and I could see the children again, this time curled into the laps of their parents, eyelids flickering, chests rising and falling, each and every one of them having made it back around.

Copyright 2011

Monday, January 03, 2011

Dancing With The Stars

I set the alarm for 3:15 a.m.. The lunar eclipse, I understood, would be most visible to those of us at approximately 32 degrees 22 minutes 2 seconds north latitude and 081 degrees, 53 minutes 2 seconds west longitude at exactly 3:17 a.m.. Two minutes would be just enough time to throw back the covers, throw on a bathrobe, throw open the door and dash into the front yard.

My calculations were excellent. I tip-toe-ran across the front porch and down the brick steps, made a hard right toward the southwest and threw my head back as far is it would go. At that exact moment the moon, a mottled yellow, pale as margarine, began to change color. From the lower lefthand curve the yellow yielded – slowly, slowly, slowly – to seashell pink and then to pale salmon and, finally, to deep rich coral. Translucent, like waxed paper or, better, like the glass blocks in bathroom windows. And so perfectly round it could have been drawn with the little metal compass I used in tenth grade geometry.

The sun, the earth, the moon in perfect alignment. On the winter solstice. The first time in 372 years. As the deeper color spread over the face of the moon, I realized that the constellations were brighter, that in the absence of the moon’s reflected light their own was suddenly more visible. I felt as though someone had handed me 3-D glasses and with just one step I could be walking among them, swimming in the Big Dipper, swinging from the North Star. I realized that I’d wrapped my arms around myself and I wasn’t sure whether it was from the cold or the sheer delight.

I do not know how long I stood there, acres of open field around me, light years of open sky above me. I know only that at some point my fleshly consciousness returned and I noticed that I was barefoot, that wet coldness was spreading through my feet into my legs as stealthily as the coral had bled into the yellow. I leaned my head back once more, twirled around once like a little girl in a petticoat and headed back inside.

The bed had not retained much of my warmth. I lay on my back, covers pulled up tight under my chin. I closed my eyes and tried to go back to sleep, but couldn’t calm my thoughts. I knew what had roused me from a warm bed on a cold night – the opportunity to bear witness to something that no one alive had ever seen before.

What I was trying to figure out was what had kept me there, alone, in the cold, in the dark, watching the moon change colors, staring at stars too distant to reach. Something familiar, but distant. Something I knew, but hadn’t experienced in a while. Something universal and, at the same time, intimate.

Eventually I slept, the image of the night sky cycling through my mind.

The next morning I sent a quick e-mail to a friend, sharing that I’d gotten up to see the eclipse. "The sky over Sandhill was as clear as I've ever seen it," I typed quickly, "and the constellations were so distinct, even without my glasses. I want to live in that awe. I want to exist in that state of reverence. I want everywhere I stand to be sacred ground."

Ah, yes, that was it. Awe. Reverence. That was what had wrapped me up, drawn me in. The acknowledgment of something, some thing beyond myself that is, at the same time, the essence of my self.

The next lunar eclipse will occur on June 15, 2011, and I plan to be watching. It will be beautiful and amazing and perhaps, depending on the circumstances, even particularly memorable. The next lunar eclipse on the winter solstice won’t happen until 2094. I doubt I’m around for that one, but somewhere on this green earth I am convinced there will be a woman standing in the darkness, staring at the stars, resisting the urge to dance. And the very thought of it makes me smile.

Copyright 2011