West Virginia Morning: Witness

This morning the sky is the bluest blue and the trees dress early. I look out the bathroom window as I brush my teeth. I’m on the second floor, peering over the back yard, far into the meadow behind our house. From this bird’s eye view I see the maple is taking on her early leaf flocking, a soft magenta down where buds begin to unfold. And the pussy willow dons a cottony ragtop where the sun first touches her in the morning. All the fruit trees that hide in the meadow most seasons are beginning their conspicuous bloom. I run the brush through my hair and scramble downstairs, grab the camera and go out to stand under the earth’s awakening.

The coming of spring is nothing short of a miracle most years, but when spring arrives in mid-February? This is cause for celebration. I lose myself for a time in the slow-opening of a crocus, the way a branch offers a promise—prophesies.

I try not to think about the possibility of a late-season freeze. Isn’t this hope? Giving myself fully to this moment? Annie Dillard says, “ … beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” I am there. I am here. For just this moment, I will witness the miracle of spring.

West Virginia Morning: Early Bloomer

yellow crocus

This morning, as I walked Bonnie around the house, I saw a little piece of the sun had fallen down to earth. It’s late February, and my crocuses are blooming—bright yellow petals winking in the morning dew. We’ve had an unusually warm patch of weather these past few weeks, but I’ve lived here long enough not to be fooled. The birds, however, appear to be falling for nature’s trickery. Everywhere I turn the sky is full of robin-song and sparrow-music. Yesterday I peeked in my bluebird box and, sure enough, the beginnings of a nest were tucked inside. When Jeff and I walked down Sleepy Hollow road, we saw an American Kestrel falcon perched on the powerlines. As we drew near, that beauty took flight, circling slowly over the meadow that hugged the roadway. She was so free in her flight, she took my breath.

On my days off, I’ve been working on some upcoming projects, writing curriculum for a couple classes I hope to teach and researching resources. Today, I re-read most of Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge’s poemcrazy: freeing your life with words. At the end of chapter 2, under the practice section, the author encourages the reader to buy a journal and keep it with them. “It’s never too late to start,” she says. “Don’t try to catch up by going back in your life. Start with now.”

Something about those last three words made my throat catch a little. “Start with now.” It sounds so simple, I mean, where else can I start except now? But so many days I feel like I’m trying and trying and trying … struggling to make up for all that I’ve missed—all the regret that comes with the late blooming. And then I see an early-blooming crocus and the round-headed silhouette of a falcon and I know deep inside of me: now is the only moment we really have.

Instead of feeling regret, tonight I let that thought comfort me. Tonight, I let myself be fully present in this moment and as I do, I can feel the wings of my heart stretch wide.

Wide for the soaring flight.

West Virginia Morning: Light Comes Earlier

The light comes earlier each morning. We wait for it—lift our faces to the sun like prayer. When I take Bonnie out this morning, the blue light of night still lingers. The stars still haven’t shut their eyes and I wave at Orion as we wind around the house. At the edge of the dome, light striations are only just beginning. To me, they look like layers of phyllo, layers of light, and the goodness of the earth’s rotation rouses a slight lift in my spirit.

The days grow longer and I still I miss my slow mornings: reading poetry out loud to God and Bonnie, sipping my coffee and underlining words. Yesterday, the sun warmed the winterstruck and Jeff and I sat out on the deck long into the night. The robins were singing their sweet-sad song and I could smell new grass, the earth melting from the outside in. I felt a holy whisper in my ear, grow, it seemed to purr.

Time. I’m always telling my patients that some things just take time. I don’t know why I’m so slow to adjust. Things linger inside my heart, resisting motion. But the way the light spills slowly into the days these mornings—this is teaching me. I’m learning how to pay attention in the midst of the busy—how to notice the kairos in the chronos.

I think it will be a life-long lesson. And I’m ok with that.

Blues Evangelist

We’ve returned from Memphis blues-soaked and soul-bare, stripped of all pretense. The blues can do that to you, what with roots so deep in the hard truths of human suffering. But any time I find myself poured into a sea of humanity I always emerge with a greater awareness of my own frailty. Something about rubbing shoulders with so many strangers up and down Beale Street left me with a question written on my bones.

Beale Street is a mess of neon, a seduction of the senses with all that color and noise and scent of barbeque. Music drifts from every opened door and tramps compete to charm wallets open. The air quivers with living breath, the concrete pulses a steady beat. We stayed up too late every night, breathing that air, filling our eyes and our hearts and our stomachs. There were more than 260 acts from around the world playing on Beale Street for the International Blues Challenge—the best of the best all gathered together on one street. There was music, so much music, more music than we could ever see or listen to. Through each door we entered we found delight and surprise and a gift to the spirit.

A musician once told me that creating can be a dangerous place—so much of what our culture sees as sinful can be wrapped up in the offering, that moment when the lights go low and all eyes turn to the stage. And when he said that I felt the thrill of the danger; the way I can feel music beating inside me, the pull of all that comes in with the night air.

I guess that’s why they do it, those street preachers. You know, the ones with the signs and the sandwich boards. They must feel the danger too. It must make them afraid. One night, as we made our way down Beale with throngs of other people, one of those preacher men stepped up onto a box and made a little stage for himself in the middle of the street. Lifting a sign in the air declaring the fate of all sinners, he shouted out at passers-by to repent. People filed past him on all sides, barely giving him a glance. He looked over top of the people instead of at them. He didn’t reach out to a single one.

That artist who told me creating could be dangerous? He also said “art is a liminal space.” That word, “liminal,” it means “threshold.” He was telling me that art—all beauty—creates a doorway that, when stepped into, takes us to a new place. We get to choose what that place will be. Will it be darkness or light? I believe that when we have Jesus, music—all different kinds of music—opens a doorway to a sacred space. The Celts call this a “thin place.” It’s a place where the veil between heaven and earth is a thin membrane, and the holy is felt as close as a breath on the cheek.

One of our new friends was playing in the semifinals for the IBC that night I saw the preacher on the street. It just so happened there was a Garth Brooks concert going on that evening too. As luck would have it, the concert let out just as our friend sat down to begin his set. Just he and his guitar. People began pouring into the bar, bringing with them all manner of noise and distraction. These people knew nothing about the blues competition going on. They came to drink and hang out with friends. They had no idea how nerve-shattering and exhilarating it was for our friend to make it to the semifinals. The bar was so crowded we could barely breathe without disturbing our neighbor. They just kept coming, oblivious to this big moment, filing past him on all sides, barely giving him a glance.

It was a performer’s nightmare, but our friend handled it with such grace. “God bless you all,” he said, between songs, in gratitude to the blues fans who fought their way to the front of the crowd to cheer him on. He sat on that little stage and reached out with his voice, not looking over them, but inviting them into his story by sharing songs of his life—dripping with pain and joy.

Some of the people were converted. Several folks who came from the Garth Brooks concert accepted his invitation and were drawn into the spell of the blues. A few of them filmed him with their smartphones and stopped chattering briefly to listen.

We’ve returned from Memphis blues-soaked and soul-bare, stripped of all pretense. We have heard the invitation of the blues. We stepped through the door into the light, into a sacred place.

Inauguration Day

Yesterday, according to our local weathermen, the sun came out for the first time since December 26. When Jeff got home from work, we went for a walk. I’ve been having some trouble with my back, so I couldn’t make it very far without discomfort.  When I’d had enough, Jeff went on without me and I made my way back home alone.  The sky was a fair companion and the wind shifted daubs of cumulus clouds about, rearranging the geography of heaven as I walked. Patches of azure opened and closed here and there, like pupil-less irises in the cloud sclera of sky.

I passed a row of white pines and absentmindedly plucked some needles from a bough. I lifted them to my nose and breathed in their faint scent. It was diminished by the season—tired, old. I pressed the flimsy greens between my teeth and bit down: earthy, grassy, dry.

I walked on, mouthing the needles, wondering at the day. Further along I came across an evergreen I did not recognize. It looked out of place amidst all those white pines and I was pleased to meet it.

“Hello,” I said, to be polite. “How did you end up here?” I felt a kinship with this lonely traveler on this day of days. She was a testament to my heart, a splash of truth in all the pretense.

I bent and buried my nose in a cluster of her needles. Sweet and citrusy, she offered herself to me. Her needles were long, about four inches, and in clusters—like a pine—sprayed out abundantly from the twiggy branch. The cone was open, about three inches. I plucked a cluster of needles from her upstretched arm. No sooner were they in my grasp when my fingers were sticky with the scent of orange. I bit down on acidic brightness—a fruit basket in two small stalks of green. I chewed on the resiny goodness all the way home.

This morning, in my quiet time, I read part of Luke 4. The reading took me through the temptation of Jesus (1-13), to the beginning of his ministry in Galilee (14-15), to his rejection in his home town of Nazareth (16-30). I’m reading through an old lectionary commentary, and the writer had this to say about these passages:

Today marks the midpoint of the Epiphany season, a season in which we celebrate the revelation, the manifestation (epiphania)—of God. Primarily, we celebrate how Jesus is made known—revealed to us as God’s Messiah. But something else is also revealed in this season. In this text, we, too, are made known. And we, like the congregation in Nazareth, are revealed to be a people who like to draw lines in the sand—a people with a persistent ‘we-they’ mind-set. … We can easily turn all of life into a competition—who is better than whom. …
Sometimes we would like to peg God with a certain nationality, a political party, an income level. Yet in the second half of Luke’s work, we read especially about the impartiality of God. When Peter preached about the inclusion of both Jews and Gentiles through Christ, he proclaimed, ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality’ (Acts 10:34). Literally, this reads: ‘God makes no distinction between faces.’ God does not differentiate between peoples.
No, God is not interested in faces; God is interested in hearts. Not beautiful hearts, not pure hearts, nor perfect hearts, but hearts that know their need of God …”

This morning, the sun is still shining. And I’m trying to remember to stand like my new friend—beautiful in her distinctiveness, full of grace. The freshness of such a friend can make one almost forget the pain from a tired old back, and remind to look upon this tired world with eyes of love.