8. Friday afternoon

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.

7. Tools

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.

6. The accidental couch

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.

5. Mud

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.

4. The crocus

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.

3. Fire and ice

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.

2. The train

For the train, which doesn’t give a damn about your silences. For the hoot and clang and rush and rattle that shout down your feeble murmur, box up your thoughts, carry them off to the someplace else the uproar heralds. It carries on its inevitable way, strident and straight-lined, unconcerned by person or place, unfettered by love or by hate. Nowhere is good enough to hang around long. Perfectly detached and perfectly bound. Admire its determination, but don’t envy its destiny. This train ain’t bound for glory, friends: it’s bound for Charlotte. So let it pass you by in all its trumped-up noisy peacock pride and stand your ground. The silence will return.

1. Silence

For silences: prayerful, penitent, skeptical, patient, sorrowful, anxious, lonesome, lonely, meditative, pensive, stubborn, contented. The silence between raindrops and the silence of ripples spreading on the surface of a pond. The silence between keystrokes. The silence of searching for the right word and the silence after the wrong one has been spoken. The silence when the phone does not ring. The silence when God does not answer. The silence before a baby wakes. The silence when the door has closed and the guests have gone. The silences we savor like chocolate on the tongue, closing our eyes, melting into a chair. The silences that echo too long in our bones: the silences we wakefully recall, longing to go back and fill them with some word of faith or hope or comfort. The silences we can never hear again.

Prayer over a dead bird

Carolina chickadee

Photo by Virginia Sanderson.

I’m pretty sure this isn’t theologically correct, but it seemed to help my daughter on our lunchtime walk today, when we found a tiny bird lying on the asphalt, crushed by a car.

Lord, please guide the brave spirit of our brother chickadee to fields that are always green and full of seed, where the insects are plentiful but not too swift, and the skies are ever clear for flying; and make us all more aware of the presence of your beautiful creatures, whatever form they may take. In Jesus name: Amen.

What the snow reveals

snow on leaves

Despite preemptive school closings and dire warnings of Black Ice, only a dusting of snow fell here last night — not even enough to cover the ground. A good snow, glistening contentedly in the morning sun, reflecting the clean clear blue sky after the cold front, hides the mess we’ve made of the world and gives the illusion of purity, a new beginning — “a revolution of snow,” as Billy Collins writes:

its white flag waving over everything,
the landscape vanished…
the government buildings smothered,
schools and libraries buried, the post office lost
under the noiseless drift,
the paths of trains softly blocked,
the world fallen under this falling.

But the world was already fallen, and Boris Pasternak thought the snow’s motives less than pure, seeing rather

That snow falls out of reticence,
In order to deceive.
Concealing unrepentantly
And trimming you in white

For Pasternak, indeed, snow may be nothing more than the Altoids on the breath of an alcoholic: Continue reading “What the snow reveals”