18. Hypothetical connection

For hypothetical connection. Two strangers talking over a counter, the one ringing up groceries, the other sipping his coffee. Words slip through the buzz. “He could be so much better than he is,” says the one. “If he sticks around he could be so much better next year.” The other nods. “I think the kid just needs a cheerleader.” This boy, his presence only imagined, hanging too easily in the air over a loaf of bread and a bag of chips. A troubled youth. A basketball player? Two strangers over a grocery counter: the only boy held by both in common would be public knowledge, public property, everyone’s business and no one’s responsibility. We can comfortably analyze his sins, safe from seeing the inevitable reflection of our own. We can chastise without resentment, prescribe without consequence, sympathize without hope—hope being the most dangerous consequence of all. And having done our duty, pass over in ignorance the real presence around us. The woman buying a thank-you card needs a cheerleader. The man in line behind her could be so much better than he is. Who knows?

17. One man with a sign

For one man alone with a hand-lettered sign, standing on the busy street corner. Cars fly past, too hurried to read his words, their desert wake ruffling his hair but not his determination. Grimly he stares them down; grimly they ignore him. His eyes challenge the people on the sidewalk as they approach, but most are too lost in their phones to notice the urgency of avoiding his gaze. The rest find sudden fascination in a cloud, a license plate, a speck of broken glass. What does he need so urgently to tell them? Some fool’s errand, no doubt — but every errand needs its fool. If you have not the courage to stand alone, who will stand with you? How dare you ask?

16. Sore muscles

For sore muscles that justify the sabbath to the restless mind. My mind, when tired, only races faster, careering from slippery thought to slippery thought, finding no purchase, until at last it stumbles weary into some rocky oblivion, and wakes still restive. The body, wiser, simply flags and quits. Enough, it says, and the mind acquiesces. A well-warranted pillow awaits. Tomorrow both should get some rest.

15. Young streams

For streams in a hurry to get to the river on the first day of spring. Swollen from the lackadaisical trickles of summer, awakened from the chilly slumber of winter, reborn from the endless rains of March, they rush along muddy slopes and cascade gleefully over ridges, leaping rocks, bubbling, laughing, gleeful, silly. In an awful hurry. To get to the river — and then what? To join the river’s double-time march to the sea? To roll down the slow-eroding plains to the sea, to be dismembered and disappear into the great waters of the earth? Slow down, just a little, maybe. Life is shorter than you think.

14. Feral flowers

For feral flowers gone a-ramble over roots and moss, from the tumbledown stones of a life’s foundation. From the mossy bones of a house that must once have been tidy, must once have been kept tidy by her who planted the bulbs whose blooms return each year long after her own has faded from the earth. A streak of gold in the slow-greening woods, a proud adornment to a modest house. Now in defiance of all sense and logic the adornment outlives the adorned, and by the grace of God and springtime has come to pay its respects. Flowers that mark the grave of a life, of lives once made and joined and shared. Of a way of life gone from this place, and too quickly by us forgotten. The earth remembers.

daffodils in the woods

13. Unnecessary bridges

For unnecessary bridges. The rickety aged and patchwork bridges we walk over too many times, for too many miles, feeling them rack and wobble and sway, fearing they may collapse and send us tumbling headlong into streams we might as easily have waded. A well-timed leap would clear them. Or one poorly timed; what are wet socks to lingering fear encouraged by a useless habit? What are muddy shoes beside a clawing need for safety? Why must our way be always made straight? But here: a new one. Its wood still ammber-fresh, its posts straight, its railings square, unchecked, unsplintered. Only three paces to span a mere kitten of a creek, barely a muddy ditch in a dry spell. But with letters proudly routed on the tread: Charles E. Johnson, Eagle Scout. The aid is no more needed for being well meant, but the effort seems to compel a grateful use. So I’ll take the clean boards under my feet, at least for today, and God bless you, sir.

12. The ground beneath our feet

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.

11. An icy rain

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.

10. A cardinal

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.

9. The unplayable banjo

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.