For the ground beneath our feet. The slip of paper in my cookie tells me there is nothing down there: look up! As if there were anything of consequence above our heads! Unbroken blue, on a good day. Light too strong to look at. Clouds, which we imagine into shapes of things down here. Stars, which we imagine into shapes of things down here. Look up, indeed! We ought to look down in the first place: at the mosaic of stones, the softly shooting grass, the gentle riot of wildflowers, the skittering of beetles, the slithering of infant snakes, the ripples of a strider’s feet on a mud puddle. Look up? What do expect to see? God? But there’s God now, taking off his socks, sinking his toes into the the cool mud, sniffing the tiny golden flower atop the stalk that looks like grass, the one you didn’t even notice with your head in the clouds. It’s why he made the place, you know, so don’t go thinking you’re too good for it. Look down, friend! It’s where the action is.
For an icy rain that clings sluggish to twigs, railings, fences, windshields, the undersides of cheap patio furniture. Chilled to dribbling stalactites, unwilling to commit to a freeze but unable to run away. Winter, who not so long ago was fierce, full of energy, even playful — was it only last month? — has become a petulant child up past bedtime and too tired to sleep, throwing one after another diminishing tantrum. Flinging sleet into resentful faces. Mashing shoots of grass into resentful puddles. Frosting over flower petals like candy on a cake, then wandering off as they melt, and wilt. Spattering crystals that glimmer in the gray light, crying out from the mud, demanding attention. The pines refuse this time to participate: keep their needles uniced, and politely turn away. His parents watch embarrassed from the window, themselves too weary for discipline and knowing it to be futile.
Go to sleep, kid! But there is no helping it. He will just have to wear himself out.
For a cardinal that knows me. Early morning, poking round beneath the feeder for seeds and scraps the bumbling squirrels spilled, the cardinals see me coming but no longer scatter as they once did, or as the sparrows do. Generations have lived in this yard, built nests in its trees, brought their babies to the feeders I fill, and they have learned who fills them. When I approach with feed scoop in hand they fly to a nearby dogwood a few of my paces away and wait patient. An arm’s length out of reach and unafraid. The male this morning on his low branch is hard to miss, bright red in the naked tree, backlit by dawn. I watch him as he watches me. I talk to him a little, saying nothing he understands or doesn’t know, mere small talk between neighbors: a lovely morning, spring is coming, here’s your breakfast. Like others of my neighbors he is far from tame, and like most he is not my friend. He trusts me less than he trusts my routine, and he knows me less than my habits. But we are on neighbors’ good terms, and that is enough. Neighbors’ good terms may overcome fear, and the routine of two creatures make a tiny patch on the world’s brokenness. He has sustenance until April wakes the bugs, and I have a moment’s peace and wonder. It is enough for this morning.
For the unplayable banjo hanging safe upon the wall, as silent as the bricks. Its black head sculpted into a pompadour, moussed to stone; the keys like hairpins holding nothing, never tensed. Strings of shiny copper, stiff as necks, singing to the eye but not the ear. The bridge cleverly askew like skeptical eyebrows. Cloudy swirls like prints of ghostly fingers on a silver drum that’s never rattled, never thrilling, never made to shiver at another’s touch, unresponsive to another’s rhythm. The banjo held on no one’s lap, in no one’s arms. Safe and alone upon the wall.
For a Friday afternoon and what feels like freedom. The river of an icy week runs curbside and disappears beneath the street. The setting sun casts colors of ripe peaches on the undersides of eastern clouds. The air smells sweetly of motor oil and french fries, the grease of the day and the grease of the evening. Cars blur and flash in the windows of shops. A girl in turquoise pants walks somewhere fast, hands thrust deep in the pockets of her hoodie. A woman shifts a baby uncomfortably on her hip, gazing into the distance, waiting. A man wags his beard to a silent song, his eyes creases in a creased face. A breeze slips aimless through the alley, cooling quickly in the shadows. A notion of no consequence casts loose from a wall and drifts upon the sidewalk, dragging its staple behind it. Everyone looks forward. Friday afternoon and what feels like freedom. The day will end soon. Another will follow.
For the tool that shapes the maker and the made. We see its marks upon the craft, the kerf of saw teeth or the grace of a nib, the fine dice of an onion or the coarse hewing of logs. We see its owner’s marks upon it: the wooden handle of an ancient tool, its grip worn smooth, valleyed soft by one man’s fingers, shaped by one man’s hand. But what of the hand that shaped it? How was it shaped in turn? Not the scars that surely hatch its skin—mere leftovers of temporary hurts, forgotten like frost in May. To take a tool into your hand is peril, not from its edge but from its handle, and to the hand that takes it. I mean its shape — the fingers cramped around the knife, the saw, the axe, the pen, that wield it in their sleep, that hold it invisible, that move it unbidden as if conscious. And what of the arm and the shoulder that move the hand? What of the old man’s heart and mind that after endless practice learned to desire what the tool desires, what its subject needs? When the mind’s own paths are worn and valleyed soft, when will cedes the work to hard-won habit, who then is the maker, and who the made? Who is in whose grip? The man’s is quick and firm but easily released: the tool’s is slow but loth to let him go. Handle it with care, and not too lightly.
For the accidental couch on which the accidental sojourner accidentally naps. The couch unwanted, left over, left behind, donated or merely forgotten, salvaged for a half-public basement and stuck in a corner behind the stairs. Seen for years by only the light of a compact fluorescent. Used by them that hunger and thirst for knowledge, conversation, lattes, scones, each other. Its dreary cushions stained by spilled coffee, by berries rebellious of muffins and violently quashed, by we would not like to think what else. The sojourner unconcerned: stretched out, side-lying, face to the cushions, stirring in the morning hum but lightly. Uncaffeinated. Unabsorbed by studies or chatter, the produce of keystrokes, the girl at the next table over. Not belonging in this crowd that longs to be noticed. Clothed all in black and hooded, a sleeping ninja, unidentifiable and in the shadows unseen. Politely ignored by passing baristas. Grateful for the peace, grateful for the repose, grateful for the shelter from the icy rain. A pause unmeant in a trip unplanned on a couch unwanted. Grateful while it lasts.
For mud, that dank cacophony of death and life from which all life and death comes new. All the leavings of forgotten seasons, entombed as one, consumed and voided, long returned to elements. Carcasses of spiders. Beetles, grubs. Wings of moths. Eggshells, snake skins, apple cores. Fallen limbs and mottled leaves. Lichen, moss, and petals. The body of a sparrow, broken. The blood of a squirrel. A wine-dark stew of humus, rot, decay, detritus, death. And now into this sacred ooze, this primal muck of first creation, the ancient oak tree, dead the winter, sinks his toes. Drinks in the warmth, accepts the blessing of the earth. Tomorrow he’ll unfurl his limbs, turn his face towards the sun: and live again.
For the crocus, baptized by mud, rising quiet through the dark earth and into the light, green shoots in the winter’s first waning, unnoticed for the shivering. Blooming now as the frost gives way in Lenten purple and Easter white. And gold: You did not know they blossomed in gold. Are there more colors? you asked. I said that if there are I have not seen them, but I would not presume to limit the palettes of God and horticulture. I would not presume to define the crocus.
For the fire and the ice. All night it rained through biting air, and the bitten world held fast the droplets. The streets turned to streams and the yards to bogs, but rails and windshields crusted, and the twigs of trees made ghostly fingers shimmering in the streetlight. Sometime after dawn by the sodden roadside the burden of frozen rain dragged a power line into a too-deep catenary arc through ice-tombed needles of a bent-weary pine. The heat of its challenged will sparked and caught the tree, but the insistent rain will not let it burn free. It melts, burns, smolders and freezes; melts, burns, smolders and freezes. Here a flashing amber like the hazard of a half-wrecked car, there a quick-roaring billow of gold, and always the cloud of smoke rising to the clouds of rain, gray dissolving into soft gray. Fire and ice struggle while the sky drips obstinately on, entangled like wrestlers and not, from the comfortable sidelines, elementally separable.