Sunday, February 26, 2012

Wherever Here Is

It is Tuesday afternoon. I arrive home to find Mama and Daddy immersed in the project of burning off some undergrowth in the branch behind Sandhill. I am planning a party and they’ve decided – actually Mama has decided – that the place will look prettier without the dead vines and fallen-over trees blocking sight of the pond. Within minutes there are three or four piles of brittle branches and broken limbs stacked into pyres and throwing fat orange flames into the late afternoon air.

Over the next couple of hours the flames eat up the piles of dead wood and, finally sated, die down, leaving matte black scars at the far edge of my yard. Already I have a better view of the still, flat water of the pond, silver-plated with the light of the sun that is fading in time with the embers.

It is Wednesday morning. Ash Wednesday. I wake up in darkness. Shower, dress, make the bed, realize I’ve not decided what I will undertake as a Lenten discipline. For some reason the idea of "giving up" something – chocolate, caffeine, list-making – doesn’t feel right this year. For some reason and for the first time, the connotation that comes to mind has to do with "giving up" hope and that feels contrary to the whole idea of this spiritual journey to the cross.

I go into the bathroom to put in my contacts, brush my teeth. I don’t have to decide until I get to church tonight, I tell myself. There is still time. Something will come to me. I put up my hair, put on my makeup. Yes, I have all day. Something will come to me.

And then it does. Through the half-open blinds I see the topmost edge of the sun cracking the horizon across the way toward Miss Dottie’s and the Indian cemetery. It is as thin and curved as the liner I have just now so carefully drawn across my eyelids. It is the color of mercurachrome and it is pulsing like a hammer-hit finger.

I sit down and watch it. It is moving. Rising, we call it, though we know that’s not what is happening. Imperceptibly the arc grows larger and the color brighter and what had been silhouettes on the landscape grow another dimension. I time travel 40 days hence and see Easter, sense the expectation of things that break open and spill amazement into the world, hear the hymns of redemption that only daffodils can sing. I feel as small as I have ever felt.

My eyes grow large with the very simple realization that when we make Lent about self-denial and self-sacrifice it’s still about self. When the only examination in which we engage is self-examination the process creates isolation not engagement. When we focus what is wrong we can so easily fail to be grateful for what is right.

I catch my breath. I think that perhaps I cannot wait until tonight to have the ashes smudged across my forehead, that perhaps I will this very moment run out into the branch, fall to my knees, plunge my hands into the black soot staining the ground, raise them to my face, and smear them across not just my forehead, but my cheeks, my chin, my nose, my carefully lined eyelids. I think that I must do something to demonstrate to this wide and wild and wonderful world that I am just happy to be here.

That is what I will do. That will be my Lenten observation. I will be happy to be here. I will, every day, be happy to be here, wherever here might be – a courtroom, an office, a front porch, a dirt road. Alone or in company. Harried or composed. I will be happy. And I will let the world know it.

I release my breath. I rise from the chair. I gather my purse, my car keys, my sunglasses. I walk out into the morning where the gentlest of breezes stirs up the remains of yesterday’s fires and sends tiny wisps of ash floating out into the sky.

Copyright 2012

Sunday, February 12, 2012

No Words and Singing Frogs

The habit developed slowly, as all habits do, and morphed over the years into something more like a ritual: On the night of the full moon, just before bed, I walk out on the deck to tilt my head, stretch my neck, and gaze. Once every twenty-eight days or so, I reach out with my eyes for a touchstone, a reminder that some things remain true.

Last night I stepped out onto the damp wood planks barefoot, felt the pads of my feet immediately grow chilled, and, with a slight shudder, tightened the sash on the fuzzy pink bathrobe. I took a few steps to center myself on the platform and turned toward the southeast. There it was.

I have compared a full moon to many things over the years – a poker chip being a favorite – , all of them being round and clean-edged. This moon, viewed through uncorrected near-sightedness, was anything but. Its perimeter changed with every blink, curving back and forth, its volume waxing and waning like a lung. I decided it look like nothing so much as a poaching egg.

Satisfied with the souvenir of a perfect image, I allowed myself a sigh of contentment. But I wasn’t content. The ritual of the full moon involves not just locating it, affixing it squarely in the firmament over Sandhill. It involves words. It requires that I speak to the moon, that I acknowledge its faithfulness in appearing once again. And this time there were no words.

In the branch behind the house a sound rose up. It did not startle me; I am accustomed to the night sounds of farm and field. But it did surprise me. It was the sound of frogs. An amphibian basso profundo echoing out from the boggy edges of the pond. The sound that I can’t ever remember hearing in February, the sound that usually accompanies the mild breezes of April or maybe a warm March.

My head tilted toward what was a rising chorus – now with baritones and tenors joining in. The branch that had been completely silent when I walked outside was now pulsing with voices, sound waves surging like an advancing army past the leafless branches and into the navy blue sky.

My own voice still silent, I went back inside where thin strips of moonlight fell through the cracks in the blinds across a bed in which I would eventually sleep.

I woke up early. The moon had moved to the other side of the house, was pasted in one of the panes of the bay window in the kitchen and it reminded me that I’d left things unfinished. There are only so many full moons in a lifetime, I once wrote, and now I’d squandered one.

Regret is rarely useful. I know that. And, yet, sometimes I find myself determined to wrestle with it until my hip is out of joint and I can forever walk with a limp as punishment. And I might have done that this time but for the sudden realization that the words don’t always have to be my own.

Standing there on the deck, feeling nothing except my toes going numb, I had assumed that the only words worth offering were the ones that I could mint. And that if the vein had gone dry then I must be silent. But the compline offered up by the frogs enveloped every creature under the moon – the deer leaving valentine-shaped footprints in the soft sand of the driveway, the owl perched in the crook of the burned-out pine tree, and the barefoot woman with arms crossed tightly across her heart. The reverberative chant without translation was all the offering of gratitude, all the acknowledgment of grandeur, all the demonstration of grace that any life could hope.

Copyright 2012