West Virginia Morning: Cicada Song

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This morning, I fill my feeders to the brim with black oil sunflower seeds, whispering a blessing over my feathery visitors as I move silently through what Frédéric Gros calls “the undecided blue hour.” I have been watching through the window for the better part of an hour as a Downy Woodpecker creeps and clings to the dead branches of our plum tree. We have been talking all summer about hiring someone to clear away this sad reminder of the harsh winter, but still, it stands—naked in its death, branches slowly giving way to the brittleness of time. The woodpeckers have found it inviting and for this reason I am in no hurry to cut it down.

The Downy flits away to the meadow as I draw near. I watch his retreat—that undulating flight the woodpeckers are known for. He disappears into a nearby tree and I can hear his familiar pik, pik, complaining about my invasion.

“I’m sorry,” I say, to the sky. “I hope you like this little treat.” I fasten a suet cake into the holder that dangles from the dead tree.

My Audubon Field Guide tells me the Downy is recognizable by “…its habit of tapping on branches hardly thicker than itself.” I smile as I pass under the thin branches of the plum. I’ve often thought of it as an umbrella, the pliable branches cascading down over the earth it grew out of.

I will miss this tree.

Over by the coneflowers I find an empty cicada shell. Every evening we are lulled into letting go of the cares of the day by the steady thrum of the cicada song. I stoop and study its casing, the memory of membrane on its abdomen. “Thank you,” I say, to the empty eyes.

So many songs belong to nature. This life contains so many different worlds.

Yesterday, on my way home from work, a large foreign object appeared seemingly out of nowhere in the air and crashed into my windshield—on the driver’s side, right where my head was. It happened in high-speed traffic and so fast that I couldn’t do anything but brace myself. The window was shattered and I was covered in glass. I was only a few miles from home so I limped my van on down the road in a state of shock, I think.

Life feels fragile.

There has been a lot of talk lately about online community verses flesh and blood community. I am glad for the conversation. It is good to look closer at the different worlds—to look deeper for the good of each and leave the undesired behind. After my windshield was shattered, I stayed unplugged the rest of the evening. I only wanted to be with my family and celebrate our life together. This doesn’t diminish the community I have found online—it only informs it, defines it better, I think. We should never stop learning, never stop looking deep, always asking questions. We shouldn’t shy away from what we don’t understand; but listen, study, learn.

A hummingbird does a flyby so close to my head that I feel the air from its fast-moving wings on my cheek. I duck involuntarily and the little bird is gone in a flashing moment—time on fire.

Today I am giving thanks to God for a strong windshield and good auto safety standards, for my family and all the small moments we share, for my online community and my flesh and blood community who both prayed gratitude at my safety, and for all the different songs of nature. Life is short. We will never live long enough to learn about all the different worlds out there. But I will keep trying.

 

West Virginia Morning: Tethered

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In the early hours of the morning, the spiders show off their finest work. There are the intricately wheeled silk circles of the garden orb, the thick cottony sheets layered in small patches over the grass, there are the thin spindles of threads left behind after a spider has consumed his silk and moved on. Everywhere I go in the yard I am wiping away strands unseen.

I don’t mind, this walking through feels like being kissed by dew and all these strands of gossamer tether me to the earth somehow. Frédérec Gros says that walking “is not just a matter of truth, but also of reality.” He says, “To walk is to experience the real. Not reality as pure physical exteriority or as what might count as a subject, but reality as what holds good: the principle of solidity, of resistance. When you walk, you prove it with every step: the earth holds good. With every pace, the entire weight of my body finds support, and rebounds, takes a spring. There is everywhere a solid base underfoot.”

Gravity holds me, but also all other things of this good earth cup my body tenderly; I move and breathe as part of entire system of things: the spiderweb, the pollen sifting through the air, the grass heavy with morning’s respiration …

I am not a pantheist, but it still remains that God so loved the world and when I walk through it I can feel this world he loves waiting, expectant, longing for Christ’s return.

The meadow is stitched with Queen Anne’s Lace. It is so beautiful it makes my heart ache. When we first moved here, it was different—it was tame. A retired couple owned the land and tended it meticulously. Mr. and Mrs. Casto kept it mowed, pristine, and often, when I would be pushing my babies on our swing set, Mrs. Casto would stop on her riding mower and tell me how my boys reminded her of hers. Mr. Casto has since passed away and his lovely wife lives in a residential facility. The boys and I used to visit her—take her pies made from the apples in her meadow. But time has a way of playing tricks on the memory and our visits eventually became confusing to the dear woman.

Now the meadow is a tangled mass of trees and strubs and Queen Anne’s Lace. Yesterday, I watched a ruby-throated hummingbird light on the tip of the hickory tree. It flitted from limb to limb like a feather in the wind. It’s hard to tell what hides in all that underbrush. Somewhere in there are the apple and pear trees the Casto boys used to climb for sport.

Later this morning we will drive north for my family reunion. Last night I dreamed Aunt Martha was a live and well and welcomed us when we arrived. She was young and slim and beautiful and because she was younger, I was too. There is nothing like a day with extended family to make one feel like a child. But this tethers me also—the embrace of the kin. And just like the spider silk their touch stays with me for a time.

What tethers you to this good earth?

West Virginia Morning: Listen

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I slept until nearly eight a.m. this morning, which is unusual on my days off—so many things to be done. Jeff has been sleeping a little later on these days too—he’s in-between jobs right now, focusing on contract work, which has a more flexible schedule. I’m growing fond of having his body still heavy beside me in the wee hours of morning, reaching over to find him there when he is usually gone. Something about his presence lulls my sleep into a happy state of prolong.

But I am lifted out of sleep by a soft rain whispering against the roof today. There is nothing to stop me from stepping out in it; so I do, with Bonnie, and every baptized leaf is a mirror for the white light of morning.

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg says that writing is “90 percent listening.” I think of this as I my feet visit the font of grass in our back yard. “You listen so deeply to the space around you that it fills you,” she says.

When we were on holiday, a Brown Thrasher became familiar with the quiet of our empty yard. Usually shy, these birds with the brown-spotted breasts get their name from the robust way they search for food in the underbrush, thrashing about in search of insects or fallen berries and nuts. While we were away, this young bird has grown bold, foraging on our open lawn, grousing about under my finch feeder for fallen tidbits of sunflower.

This morning I glimpse him as we round the house, taking wing at just the hint of our presence. He disappears behind the lilac bush and I wait, listening.

“If you can capture the reality around you,” Natalie says, “your writing needs nothing else. You don’t only listen to the person speaking to you across the table, but simultaneously listen to the air, the chair, and the door. And go beyond the door. Take in the sound of the season, the sound of the color coming in through the windows. Listen to the past, future, and present right where you are. Listen with your whole body, not only with your ears, but with your hands, your face, and the back of your neck … This kind of deep, nonevaluative listening awakens stories and images inside you.”

Again, the quick thrum of wing pushing against invisible air, the soft landing and swish of a light-studded lilac branch. Metallic scent of rain, thick with clover, wet grass licking my ankles. The moist air clings to my skin and I bisect the earth rushing beneath me, a vertical axis with no beginning, no end.

Listen. Listen. Listen.

What do you hear?

 

West Virginia Morning: Lifting the Small Voice

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In the mornings, my injured foot screams against movement, complaining with every bit of weight it carries. Yesterday, I returned to work and donned real shoes for the first time since the sprain. I did well walking the hard floors of the hospital all day, or so I thought, until this morning. So it’s more ice for me, foot up, and sulking. I am a poor patient.

We are tumbling back into the chronos time, jumping into the calendar days, and with each sinking of the sun the light-soaked sea seems a distant memory. Some things do not wait for us to catch up.

Last week when my family was slowing by the sea, a very disturbed young man entered a church in South Carolina and, after sitting with a group in Bible study for over an hour, shot and killed nine people. This terrible news came to us late by today’s standards—we were partially unplugged as we opened our hearts to leisure and to each other. But the next morning, my mother-in-law texted us a picture of Bonnie, who stayed with her grandparents while we were away. She wanted to show us how our girl was keeping their cats in check. In the picture, Bonnie stands guard before a cat-occupied chair. Behind this silly scene, the television. And on the screen are pictures of the nine individuals killed in that senseless attack.

I couldn’t breath when I took it in.

The rest of our holiday was tainted, the dark whisper of death shadowing each moment. How dare we frolic in the sun, laugh as ocean waves lap over us, toil through shells and sand—when individuals and our nation were hurting so? It all felt so frivolous, yet … I held each moment all the more tenderly for my breaking heart.

And so we have realized that all our knowledge, all our perceived progress, all that we think we know about race relationships in this world can turn to dust in our mouths in an instant. We have been naïve in the desire to believe love has conquered and all is well. We are left bruised and bewildered.

Where do we go from here? How can anything I say even matter?

Before we left on holiday, I finished up some editorial work for The High Calling on an upcoming theme called “The Power of Empathy.” I read so many resources about empathy when preparing my editorial summary. One of the best was Brene Brown’s TED talk on “The Power of Vulnerability.” In it, she gives four qualities of empathy:

  1. The ability to take the perspective of another person.
  2. Staying out of judgment.
  3. Recognizing emotion in other people and,
  4. Communicating this recognition.

Brown says, “Empathy is a choice and it’s a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you I have to connect with something inside myself that knows that feeling.”

My voice is but a small one. One white woman who knows so little of how to love through a mess like this. Yet, it’s important for me to speak, it’s important for me to communicate that I recognize how broken this world is, how sorry I am, how helpless I feel. It’s important for me to speak against this terrible violence, to wonder with the many what can be done. I am trying to look at the world through a different perspective. I will keep trying. It matters.

Christian Wiman speaks of “life as landscape” or “resume.” We all long to look back on our existence as a whole and name our impact on the world. But, he says, this isn’t the best way. Life is incremental, he says, and we can never “really see this one thing that all our increments (and decrements, I suppose) add up to.” He goes on to say, “We are meant to be a lens for truths that we ourselves cannot see.”

I want my life, my words, to be a lens for truth.

If you are struggling with what to say and do, you may want to read this post from my friend Deidra. We must join hands and speak. As writers and storytellers we have a unique position of influence. Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes says, “Stories set the inner life into motion.” The stories I share here are meant to bring unity, to shine light on beauty, and awaken in each reader the awareness that we all share certain qualities. But also to celebrate our differences without judgment. Natalie Goldberg says, “We walk through so many myths of each other and ourselves, we are so thankful when someone sees us for who we are and accepts us.”

This is a good place to begin. Again. And again. One increment at a time. Being a lens for truth. Letting our stories move people to action, even small ones.

We move forward in this hard place. Together.

West Virginia Morning: The Million Little Oblivions

Yesterday, when I came home from work, I picked the rest of the kale from my garden. It was a long overdue harvest (and the fence is not yet fixed so I figured I better get busy). I worked diligently down each row, still clad in my work clothes, letting the burn of the evening sun remind my skin of younger days. Something of the smell of sun on soil stirred the memory of our family garden when I was a girl, and I was lost for a time in a rhythm of steady picking and the company of ghosts.

The kale is cleaned and waiting to be added to a soup, but this morning I couldn’t resist sautéing a little red onion in a dollop of bacon grease, dropping in some greens and tomatoes, and scrambling an egg over all that goodness. It’s my favorite springtime breakfast and it felt like a celebration.

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Today is Jeffrey’s last day of school, so I was up early to make his “hello summer” breakfast: special pancakes and a side of sausage. I sent him off with a full tummy and a mamma kiss, and sat at the kitchen table in wonder of the way the earth spins so quickly these days.

As I sat before my celebration breakfast, I watched out the window for the sparrow—the persistent little bird that has taken over my bluebird box. Every spring it’s the same thing—I pull nest after sparrow nest from the box, trying to dissuade the scrappy things from inhabiting. But they always outwit me, building replacement nests with such speed and alacrity that inevitably; the eggs are laid before I can dispose of their bed. And I haven’t the heart to toss them. Instead, each morning I watch for the sparrow head to emerge so that I might simultaneously cuss and praise her grit.

I watch her lift herself up out of the box and fluff her feathers on a nearby branch. And as she pushes off for whereabouts unknown, light comes. It’s the same shaft of light I welcome each morning—brought by a peeking sun funneled through neighboring houses and over rooftops. There is nothing remarkable about that falling light; it’s just an everyday miracle. The way it announces the day and sheds over the backyard, lifting my heart as it spreads like spilled milk on the table.

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As a buttery bite of kale crisps on my tongue, I watch the light move across the yard and I realize, as Christian Wiman says, “the million little oblivions of which the day is made”—all everyday miracles.

Good cause for celebration.