West Virginia Morning: Hope Emissary

Fridays are the emissaries of hope. And I had so much hope for this day.

We pick Ted up tomorrow for his spring break and so my plan for this day was to tidy the house, give him a cozy welcome, do the mom thing. I washed his bedclothes, tucked in the grace of fresh sheets. I picked up his space and vacuumed away the dust of his absence. I was doing okay, ticking items off the list, until I went outside to empty the vacuum canister. We have a bagless and when the canister is full, I like to walk to the edge of the yard to empty the dirt of our lives into the meadow. It makes me happy to think of a bluebird nest knit together from the lint of our carpet fibers, a sparrow chick nestled into strands of my hair. Bits of our life and skin and dust passed on in love. Ashes to ashes.

When I have things to do, it’s dangerous for me to go outside. From my place by the fence where I stood tapping the vacuum canister against the post, trying to loosen stubborn bits of fuzz and life debris, I had a clear view of the walnut tree that was taken down by the windstorm day-before-yesterday. That old beauty splintered right down the middle and dropped his right fork into my neighbor’s yard.

I couldn’t help myself. I set the canister down on my raised bed and moved closer.

A small cupboard, cracked open—a secret hiding place for squirrel or woodpecker or other forest spirit was given me. Scent of dried wood wafting, long inner striations exposed, rough bark cracked and frayed—his years laid bare. Yet, he still rustled briskly up above. How many times have we given that tree up for dead when it surprised yet again with fruit in season? In the wounding, I could see the long struggle for the years. The inner parts were dry and brittle in places, smoothed to a shiny sheen in others. Still, the remainder of the row of trees stood on, oblivious to their brother’s demise. Could they be? I know it’s impossible. I know how trees speak to one another, how they share much more than the sunshine that falls over their leaf-hats.

I ran my hand along the splintered skin. I felt the sadness all tree-lovers feel when such a shelter is struck down. I whispered thanks to the tree for all it has given and wondered aloud to God at the brilliance of such a thing as a tree. I remembered Belden Lane’s petition to include trees in the Communio Sanctorum, the communion of the faithful, and I understand. As I took my leave, the sky let loose with the frailest of snowflakes—love confetti for our brother tree.

I grabbed the vacuum canister and headed back to work.

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.

The Gathering Waters

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These past few days I cannot seem to shake this dis-ease—this disease of anxiety. It’s the feeling of the earth shifting under the feet; of doubt in all that I’ve known to be true. Our neighbors are hurting. We’ve given and donated and offered ourselves as available, but for those who’ve lost so much it can never be enough.

So I do what I always do when I feel helpless, I bury my nose in a book. A couple days ago I picked up Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, a novel I’ve always wanted to read but just never have until now. Summer is for reading, and what’s more, for reading fiction, in my book; so I finally took the plunge. I’ve savored every word of Berry’s economical writing, loving his storytelling voice, which—and this came as no surprise for one well-familiar with his poetry—is warm and rich and lovely.

Last night Jeff had a late meeting and Jeffrey had plans with friends, so after I fed the one remaining boy at home (grilled chicken and vegie kabobs, outside dining on the deck), it was with a thrill that I spread an old blanket out under the shade of the lilac bush. The ground is almost dry now from the heat of the summer sun, the sky dripped blue over me, and I could hear the grasses in the meadows shushing. I carried a stack of books with me like I was going on retreat and read with the songs of Robins as a backdrop.

Turned out I only needed the one book, Jayber Crow. I settled deeper and deeper into the story of orphan boy turned man and it was just the distraction I needed. Imagine my surprise, then, when I turned the page and came upon a chapter titled, “The Gathering Waters.”

In this chapter, Jayber is trying to get back home to Squire’s Landing, Kentucky after taking a roundabout way through Louisville. He is on foot and Berry soon has him walking through one of history’s greatest flood stories, The Great Flood of 1937. In Jayber’s story, he safely crosses a bridge in peril, only to find himself with nowhere to go. A policeman directs him to the capitol building, where he finds warmth, shelter, a hot meal, and a place to sleep for the night among other refugees.

I was thoroughly tired, and I didn’t exactly lie awake, but I didn’t exactly sleep either. As soon as I shut my eyes I could see the river again, only now I seemed to see it up and down its whole length. Where just a little while before people had been breathing and eating and going about their old, every day lives, now I could see the currents come riding in, at first picking up straws and dead leaves and little sticks, and then boards and pieces of firewood and whole logs, and then maybe the henhouse or the barn or the house itself. As if the mountains had melted and were flowing to the sea, the water rose and filled all the airy spaces of rooms and stalls and fields and woods, carrying away everything that would float, casting up the people and scattering them, scattering or drowning their animals and poultry flocks. The whole world, it seemed, was cast adrift, riding the currents, whirled about in eddies, the old life submerged and gone, the new not yet come.”

As I read Jayber’s story, I knew I was reading the story of so many West Virginians. My heart was in my throat as I poured over each line, each detailed description of Jayber’s encounters. The scenes were so real, so fresh to me, and images flashed through my mind of mud-filled school buildings, cars atop trees, houses spilled out into the streets. Everything I’ve seen and heard on the news these past few days came to the forefront of my mind and my heart was stilled. Berry places his hero in the Great Flood of 1937, a flood—Wikipedia tells me—that seeped from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, left one million people homeless, took 385 lives, and caused millions (billions by today’s standards) in property damage. This, during the Great Depression when resources for aid were scarce.

It feels like our little state has dipped back in time. We keep shaking our heads and wondering how such devastation can occur during this day and age. But this is what comes of a living scratched out in the shadow of these ancient mountains, a living born in the rich soil of river valleys. It is, as Berry wrote, “… as if the mountains had melted and were flowing to the sea.”

Cleanup will take a long time here. It will cost much, in more than dollars.

If you want to see more of what is going on here, here’s a little taste from the Weather Channel.

If you’d like to help with the recovery, check out these organizations.

The Red Cross
The United Way of Central West Virginia
Volunteer West Virginia
The Salvation Army

And please keep praying for our neighbors.