Timelessness

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There is something timeless about a stormy afternoon.

Even though the wind has everything in motion. Leaves let go and scuttle across pavement. Newly uncloaked locust branches, dipped in wet ink, sign repeating messages against the screen of gray sky. Chimes in the snowball bush outside your studio diminuendo then clang again on the same four notes.

Here, at the desk which was still in your father’s office three years ago, the light from the window doesn’t change.

There is something delicious about the timelessness of a stormy afternoon. You eat a bit too much of it and grow dreamy. The chords of ambition you had yesterday, when the peak was covered in snow, when the sun came and went and the air remained mild, when the washer filled and emptied onto the line, when the last of the black beans were harvested, when the garlic harvested in July was tucked in neat rows following the beans and covered with old pine needles, when the fresh sheets went back on the bed, when the onions simmered into the first robust soup, when the house was tidied, when candles were lit and the table set for company, those chords have become a hypnotic drone in which countless melodies reside.

Choose one of those melodies and let it lead you into remembering how much you love looking up words in a heavy, printed dictionary. Drop into the relaxed rhythm of your breathing, the sense that you are napping while fully awake, the sense of fullness in your belly where awareness dwells and phrases form and echo out like slow strikes on a steeple-full of well-cast bells.

You feel warm and steamy as if fresh from your bath and the Lawrence Welk show is floating bubbles up the screen. You feel dark and purposeful like the garlic.

On the aqua vinyl cushions on the furniture on the front porch, hundreds (oh, yes, hundreds) of spring bulbs are sorted according to type and destination. Harvested from the soil near where the bones of your great grandparents rest and destined to naturalize on the last rise of prairie below the Rockies, they are stalwart and ready. When the storm passes, work resumes.

For now, the industry of timelessness is warranted.

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Cutting Down

(Adapted from an essay written in 2004)

“Widespread frost expected,” warns the forecaster. It’s past sunset. We’ve already had a morning of shimmering windshields. Hauling containers full of fragile plants into shelter for the night takes a lot of effort, and for what few days until the next crystalline visit. So, I decide to take my chances by draping everything in old bed clothes.

“I’ll miss you if you’re gone in the morning,” I whisper as I tuck plants in. “Thank you for all the beauty.” Sheets and worn blankets spook me, looking like mounded snow in the post twilight. I leave the porch light on, as if its yellow glow will ward off freezing.

With an extra cover on my own bed, the open window narrowed to a crack, I snuggle down to sleep.

In the dream, I walk through a wood to an audience with a holy man. Along the way I pass an old friend reclining on a soft earthy mound. He seems lovely and quiet, full of knowing.

To the holy man I query, “How can we be both mortal and immortal at the same time?” He laughs, delighted. When I leave, I find my friend again. He greets me weakly, yet with good cheer. Near his shoulder, a gentle woman, clothed entirely in white, tends him. He is dyeing of aids. A bruise-red blotches his extremities. He turns an arm, admiring its autumnal color.

Then, I am awake. Morning spills into the sky. Even viewed from my pillow, something in the light informs me the frost didn’t come. The warning, the shroud-like sheets, the saying goodbye have only conspired to awaken a question. Like a spring bulb, whose roots break dormancy when the soil cools, my subterranean mind conjured a dream to help me ask it.

Out in the daylit garden, the colors ripen. The season of cutting down is here.

It’s a controversial subject, this cutting down. Some folks want everything cleared away. That way they can skip the reminders of the end of summer and have only the clear space of potential to look at through the winter. Some prefer to leave everything in place and let winter blanch and break and blow the plants into new forms. Seeds scatter this way. There is more to catch and hold the snow, more to soften the wind. Insects might take shelter. Birds find a seed or two.

My criteria are showing.

Even so, as each rooted resident succumbs to the process of perishing, I assess its contribution to the scene. When none can be found, it is cut down. Among the first to go were the sunflowers. All of mine were planted by squirrels. Weeks ago, they started shinnying the stalks, harvesting their bounty. For a while the leaning and headless trunks still had some charm, but when the leaves tarnished, the plants simply had to go. No meaningful second flowering, no functional value, not even a beak-full of treat for a visiting woodpecker warranted their staying.

While I have a fondness for certain forms, colors, seed-throwers, and wind-dancers, I also have my critic. The scraggly, the uninteresting, the very tired-looking come off at the base.

There is work to do. Striding into the garden with nippers and a tarp to catch debris, today, there is also a tenderness around my heart. I can’t simply judge and execute. I crunch leaves into mulch and pat it into place with my hands. I snip pithy stems for the compost. Remembering earlier glories and committing them to future soil, I give thanks.

I tend the garden, giving it effort and whimsey. And then I let it go, giving it respect and gratitude. And, yet, it’s the garden which grows me. What endurance is transplanted into my character? What compost is made for the seed-bed of my wisdom? What support provided for the delicate twining of my hopes?

I return to the house, spent and nourished. The lilac by the back stoop extends a twig of turning leaves. I admire the bruise-red color.

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Quietly Turning

It rained on the flat corner lot. It rained from before dawn on Wednesday and well into afternoon. It rained slowly, soaking parched soil without overfilling it.

While it rained, I checked things off the indoor to-do list. Each check energized me. While it rained, I played in the kitchen. I roasted beets, yams, onions, and garlic and made a golden soup, the first steamy bowl of this new season.

A golden beet, a carrot, a handful of Sun Gold tomatoes, and chunks of roasted turkey simmered in “Morga”, boullion brought to me last Summer from Switzerland. When the vegetables were just tender, I stepped out in the generous rain to snip leaves: chives, parsley, basil, rosemary. Over the pot on the stove, they were further snipped into bits and fell into the saffron brew.

The few tomatoes, which only formed after the horrendous dry heat of mid-Summer, slowly ripen. Potatoes and onions yellow then fall one-by-one. The native and heirloom beans I planted in May and replanted after the hail in June waited for cooler nights to flower and fruit. We have that in common.

Next week’s weather forecast says “dry.” Mornings will be crisp, afternoons deliriously mellow. The beans have plenty of time to mature, and I can let my own seeds plump, turn starchy with food, and harden into polished plantable dreams.

Out near the room-sized cotoneaster, the sprinkler is quietly turning, arcing rainbowed drops on soil still open from Wednesday’s rain. Like a dervish, I’m turning, too, gathering a centered sense of union and awakening visions. I love the lack of frenzy that Autumn brings, both to life and to the garden. It opens me up to the new.

Falling Away

Small, golden leaves drift and spiral into the front garden from the honey locust trees, sentries in the median round the flat corner lot. Wearing long pants and short sleeves, I brunch on the aqua vinyl cushions, seduced and recalling snow. It is well into the seventies, and most of the neighborhood’s canopy is only hinting at their coming display. By the grace of some long-ago planter and the last-come, first-go nature of locusts, I have a private autumn.

A stab of trepidation surprises me as I discover the look of contorted, soot-black branches against the moody sky. Is this how a prophet feels when a vision of the yet unknown asserts itself? I could post a warning on the fence: Look up! Emptiness is coming! Practice letting go before it’s too late!

Round back, the largest Siberian elm has lost a limb. A turbulence of cloven hooves and leather wings leaped and swooped through the neighborhood at pre-dawn last Thursday, and carelessly tumbled it. The descent must have included an acrobatic bounce, because it landed across the fence even though it once extended across the sidewalk in the opposite direction.

The limb was one of three which formed its broad crown, rolling shade across the back yard in perfect counterpoint to the sun’s arced passage. I always knew the tree would have to come down some day. It’s warily branched and weak from disease. Now, missing the streetside limb, it seems to list toward the power line to the house. I will have to consult someone. I love the tree too much to make the decision too hastily and on my own.

I couldn’t deal with the limb the day it came down, nor the next day for that matter. I had too much scheduled, some things I couldn’t change. Work. Appointments. Taking my dad to see a behavioral therapist and his doctor. A much anticipated evening of laughter with friends.

When I got home the second evening, the sidewalk was passable, and there was a note on the front porch: “I will be over in the morning to help finish cleaning up. Jim”. I darn near wept. And sure enough at 8:20 AM, I grabbed loppers and gloves, drove the pick-up round to the mess, and he was already whittling things down to size. In a couple of minutes, Jim’s wife, Jo, joined us, and we had the limb stripped, bucked, and stuffed in the pick up in just an hour.

“How’s your dad?” They wanted to know.

“Not so great.” The honest answer.

All the report said was “significant cognitive impairment”. A full neuropsychological evaluation was recommended. For an 87-year-old guy, he’s quite physically well. His spirit still sparks, too. But his mind is falling away.

Today, though we drove just blocks from the gardenhood, to another appointment, I avoided the temptation to detour and show him the place. The drive had been confusing enough, and a diversion might have stressed him to the point of losing the clarity we’d been granted to share. As we got nearer his place, descending a hill, Dad sang. “Down in the valley, the valley so low.” I joined him. “Hang your head over, hear the wind blow.” We sang two verses, and those blue eyes, now the color of autumn sky where it pales to meet the horizon, caught mine in recognition. We still have time to practice.

We might try this old hymn:

For the beauty of the earth, for the beauty of the skies, for the love which from our birth, over and around us lies…

For the beauty of each hour of the day and of the night, hill and vale, and tree and flower, sun and moon, and stars of light…

For the joy of ear and eye, for the heart and mind’s delight, for the mystic harmony linking sense to sound and sight…

For the joy of human love, brother, sister, parent, child, friends on earth, and friends above, open hearts both sweet and wild…

Holy All That Is we raise this our song of grateful praise.