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Tis the season
of crinkle leaf
windy branch dark
against slate sky.

Here clouds roll
air bites cold
breathing woody smoke
and frosty damp.

Life huddles
squinty-eyed
and misty breath
waiting for spring.

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I needed a better coat, something with a little more class than the country-coarse I wear around the yard. So I reached into the back of the closet and pulled out something respectable, stored and unused for years, waiting for just this time.

Later, I discovered the pockets weren’t empty.

The coat was pale grey, so pale it was almost white. I don’t know if the coat was ever used much, but I wasn’t its first owner. It was an inheritance from Grandpa.

There is an odd little thrill wrapped up in finding things in the pockets of second hand clothing. I remember the sensation from a few lucky finds in second hand clothes brought into the house. It feels a bit like finding treasure, and a bit like finding the remnants of a past civilization. Much like finding scribbled notes in a book, the pocket discoveries are memorials to those who came before. They are fun when you can imagine the things found belong to someone living, someone still carrying on their adventures somewhere else in the world. The finding is more melancholy when you know the person who left the tokens is dead.

Both front pockets were full. In the right I pulled out a small ziplock bag with a few packets of sugar substitute and two match packets from a grocery story no longer in business. There was also one crumpled paper towel. The other pocket held another booklet of matches, more paper towels neatly folded, yellow with age, and a few tissues. In the bottom of the pocket was one piece of peppermint candy.

The matchbooks and folded paper towels brought the surprise and ache of memory. This was grandpa’s treasure, carefully stored away over a decade ago. Back when he still smoked the matches were a regularly necessity. When I was little he would let me blow the match out after he had lit the cigarette. The sugar was in case it was needed for coffee, the candy because a man needed that for in a pinch. And the paper towels folded for use as tissues was the perennial mark of Grandpa.

Memories that I go looking for don’t catch me by surprise, and the act of deliberately digging up the past provides its own form of preparation, which is a bit of a defense. But unexpected memories stumbled upon, the past preserved as if it had only happened yesterday and so bridging nearly two decades as if it were only hours ago can give a strange hurt made poignant with its unexpected freshness.

Ah, hello Grandpa. No, I hadn’t forgotten you. Life moves so quick, but strange how you are still so freshly here.

 

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I mostly avoid putting stuff on Facebook. Maybe because it feels like too many social sphere’s overlap and things I want to share with one sphere I’m not interested in sharing with another and I’m too lazy to edit who sees what so I just don’t share.

Also, my amusing updates would mostly only be appreciated by myself and a select few.

Case in point. I almost just posted the following to my FB wall: “My butt is tired.”

This statement actually says a lot but most people on FB would not understand.

My butt is tired, but after some therapy I might go out and do some more lawn mowing.

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Juliet is one of the new chickens we were given. The flock was depleted by the ravages of a wild animal, with only three survivors. Five added hens have brought the company back to a better number.

Additions to a flock can sometimes be rough, but this time everyone has adapted well. Juliet made the transition best. She has the combination of smarts, and boldness. She also likes to sit on laps.

Today is warm so all the chickens are out and enjoying the approach of spring. They do find comfort and security in numbers.

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Only the most hardest of plants have begun to grow outside. Spring has started to stir, but its full glory is still weeks away. Inside, the vibrant splash of yellow is a cheerful reminder of what is coming.

I have an itch to work the earth, but not yet.

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The darkness of winter has passed. A vigorous March wind pulls the clouds across the sky. It isn’t warm, but the sun calls me to come out and rake the yard. Maybe I will after I finish painting the closet.

An autumn wind is the herald of winter’s coming chill. A spring wind calls forth all sorts of activity.

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The hours creep on past midday and I glance out the window. Drizzle has been the friend of the morning, and the unseasonable warmth of this late March weather has helped chase away much of the remaining snow. The fog across the valley catches my attention. The dreary landscape rises from field to trees and ends in a wall of gray. Sky and land are lost there and it is somehow grim and tantalizingly curious.

I know the hill is not so very tall, but in the moment of imagination those trees could keep going up and up to a high mountain peak. There might be dragons there.

Fog threatens and invites, and seems it will never leave until it suddenly does. The heavy cloak is a waiting that will soon pass.

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“The Silence of God” by Andrew Peterson

It’s enough to drive a man crazy
It’ll break a man’s faith
It’s enough to make him wonder
If he’s been sane
When he’s bleating for comfort
From Thy staff and Thy rod
And the heavens’ only answer
Is the silence of God

And it’ll shake a man’s timbers
When he loses his heart
When he has to remember
What broke him apart
And this yoke may be easy
But this burden is not
And the crying fields are frozen
By the silence of God

If a man has got to listen
To the voices of the mob
Who are reeling in the throes
Of all the happiness they’ve got
When they tell you all their troubles
Have been nailed up to that cross
What about the times when even
Followers get lost
‘Cause we all get lost sometimes

There’s a statue of Jesus
On a monestary knoll
In the hills of Kentucky
All quiet and cold
And He’s kneeling in the garden
Silent as a stone
And all His friends are sleeping
And He’s weeping all alone

And the man of all sorrows
He never forgot
What sorrow is carried
By the hearts that He bought
So when the questions dissolve
Into the silence of God
The aching may remain
But the the breaking does not
The aching may remain
But the the breaking does not
In the holy, lonesome echo
Of the silence of God

-AP

Recording: https://youtu.be/cvytewIxll0

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I am not very consistent about giving gifts. Sometimes I give a gift for the sake of giving a gift–but I much prefer giving a gift that springs from thought and comes with meaning. The meaning in the gift can be as simple as “I read this book and I thought you would like it” to as deep as “I hand crafted this item to be a token of my love.” Whatever the meaning, the gift must be something more than the requisite tie, socks, or gift card if it is to escape being so boring to give so as to not feel worth the effort.

It is often the case that when a gift-giving occasions come around I find myself without ideas for meaningful gifts and so I just don’t give anything. I have passing dreams of being a great gift giver who finds the perfect meaningful gift for everyone each time, but the reality is that–at best–I have been very erratic in gift giving. I don’t have a strong need to receive gifts either–I appreciate a thoughtful gift but I don’t measure how much I am loved by my loot–and these tepid feelings don’t help me be more consistent in giving gifts.

My wife is quite the opposite. For Debbie, gifts are a primary way of expressing love. Being aware of this fact, I have been very careful to not succumb to my habitual laxity. I always enjoy giving her gifts, but I must be on top of my game since my preferred way of giving requires thought–sometimes daydreaming and inspiration–and often the application of time.

Because I delight in giving meaningful gifts, bouts of creativity can produce gift giving even when not expected. It is not traditional (in American culture) for a husband to give his wife gifts on their wedding, and Debbie was not expecting anything from me on this occasion. But for me the delight of giving totally unexpected gifts is second only to the delight of giving meaningful gifts, and so with great anticipation I formulated a plan to give Debbie one gift for every day of the week of our honeymoon. None of the gifts were extravagant, but I put careful thought into each of them and what the giving of them meant.

The strangest gift was the first, which I gave on our wedding day. It was a box of seven eggs.

On the superficial level the gift was an allusion to an event in the second novel I published, The Stuttering Duke of York. The hero of the story was told he had to provide a gift of infinite worth if he wanted to marry a princess–and so he provided eggs which could hatch and the chickens then lay more eggs which could hatch…and so on. Infinite worth.

On the literal level the eggs were an opportunity. I told her she could either just use them like eggs from the store and eat them, or we could borrow my sister’s incubator and hatch the eggs. She could turn the gift into a gift of chickens, if she so chose.

There was a serious side to the gift as well. Life is the greatest gift, and eggs–with life stored away inside them–are a picture of life. I gave Debbie a metaphor for the giving of life–symbolically, the greatest gift I could give on our wedding day was my life.

Finally, the gift was (to me) also a riddle. It was a picture of the riddle for what life is–the greatest and hardest and strangest gift we will all receive.

******

Debbie decided to hatch the eggs and we started the incubator when we returned from the honeymoon. Over the course of the incubation period it became apparent that one of the eggs was not developing so we discarded that egg, leaving six. Then, after the appointed number of days had passed, the eggs began to hatch. This was Debbie’s first experience watching eggs  hatch so the process was followed with much excitement.

Five of the eggs hatched without any unusual difficulty (though you only have to watch an egg hatching in progress to realize what hard work it is for the chick). However, the last chick was unable to extract itself from the shell. Once this became apparent we undertook to extract the chick–a slow and almost surgical process. We discovered the chick was still attached to the shell via its umbilical cord which I cut and hoped for the best. The chick did survive and even flourished.

In my many years of raising chickens I have named only a few–chickens come and go and becoming too attached adds difficulty. But these chickens were Debbie’s special pets and she wanted to name them, so they became: Eldest (the first to hatch), Petunia, Gawain, Matilda, Jerusha, and Lazarus (the chick we had to save from its shell and an early death). The naming process happened before the gender of the chicks was apparent which resulted in the humorous mis-match of a rooster named Petunia. By some stroke of luck the rest managed to be gender appropriate.

Life started good. The chicks lived in a box under the unfinished cabinet space beside the refrigerator. Debbie delighted to watch as they grew and developed in their individual personalities. Then they were old enough to begin exploring outside, and soon we were taking them cricket hunting in the yard. All was well until we noticed Gawain had a problem with his beak. A genetic deformity was causing his lower beak to not develop while his upper beak was over-developing and curving sharply like a parrot beak. The problem became worse as he grew, and it became increasingly difficult for him to pick up food. As his bottom beak continued to fail in development there was no space for his tongue in the beak so it was pushed back to block his throat and making it nearly impossible for him to swallow.

We observed him for a number of days and it became apparent he was not getting enough food–and it soon became clear that without intervention he would starve. I stepped in as chicken doctor and trimmed the upper beak as best I could and tried to feed him soft foods (such as bits of bread soaked in milk) which he could more easily swallow (though this was still quite difficult and sometimes I would push the food down his throat with a Q-tip). Several times each day I would carefully feed him. We hoped that if Gawain grew big enough his beak and throat issues would improve enough that he would be able to feed himself. For a short while I thought we might be successful. But Gawain continued to fall further and further behind his hatchmates, growing ever more gaunt while the other’s flourished. Even if he did not starve to death in spite of my feeding efforts I didn’t see how he could survive the winter in his poor condition.

Gawain’s lower beak continued to fail to develop to the point that he eventually swallowed his tongue, a little pouch forming beneath his beak. I thought perhaps with the tongue not in the way as much it might help his swallowing, but this wasn’t the case. Every day I repeatedly fed Gawain, but every day he became more desperate for food. It became apparent that it was only a matter of time until he wouldn’t be able to keep going any longer. Some days it felt like feeding him was just prolonging his misery.

The first chill mornings of autumn came. By this time the chicks had graduated to the real chicken coop our in the back yard and every morning I would let them out for their daily adventures in the great outdoors. After a chill snap in late September I opened the coop door to find Gawain dead on the floor. Whether the cold did him in, or starvation, I don’t know.

Gawain was a hard loss. I have dealt with many dead chickens, and in the process of butchering for meat I have killed a lot of chickens. Dealing with death is never fun, but Gawain’s death was peculiarly difficult because I had invested so much time and effort in trying to overcome his deformity and give him a good life. His death felt like my personal failure against the ugliness of life, and the sadness felt like it stood in for much larger hard things in life.

That day got worse. A few hours later I was outside and noticed the chickens were acting strange–very watchful and alarmed. With a stomach dropping sensation I noticed one of them was missing. Where was Jerusha? Hawks had made several attempts on the young birds over the summer and I had almost perpetual anxiety that predatory success was just around the corner. Some searching–and noticing the few feathers drifting on the air–brought me to the front steps where a scattering of more feathers told the story of where the hawk hit Jerusha and carried her away.

Two chickens lost in one day (our two favorites). It was a hard blow for Debbie when she came home to the news.

Still, life went on. When Debbie’s sister Abigail lost all of her chickens except two survivors to a wild animal attack, we inherited the fortunate Agnes and Edna, two Red Star laying hens. Not too many days later Edna revealed herself as a psychotic chicken with a compulsion to wander far and wide and spend the morning tearing up the neighbor’s flower beds. So Edna was soon traded to my sister Deirdre for Beatrice–another Red Star–as a replacement. Everyone settled into the new pecking order and life was good.

Then one winter morning I found Lazarus dead in the chicken coop, his headless body dragged over into a corner–the probable work of a mink. The foolish rooster liked to sleep in nest hutches which were far less safe than the roosting poles. “Our favorite ones always die,” Debbie said bitterly. First it was Gawain and Jerusha, and now goofy brainless Lazarus who had risen to take the place of the departed. Debbie decided she didn’t want to see the ravaged remains of Lazarus, so I trudged through the snow to dispose of the body up in the woods.

The rest of the chickens continue to live out uneventful days. Matilda is the clever and thoughtful one but she is the least dominant and is picked on by the other chickens. She likes being held by the humans she trusts. Petunia is the rooster in charge, a congenial fellow who gets along with people and manages his flock with with a light rule. Eldest is skittish and resentful with bouts of hostility. Agnes and Beatrice faithfully lay an egg a day and quietly think the world revolves around them.

I was sad when sorrow hit Debbie in the first tragedy of the chicken flock, but I had known it would come eventually–not if, but when. Therein that promised sorrow was the riddle of the gift. Those eggs–bound tight up with the promise of life–were filled with both joy and grief. If she decided to hatch those eggs I knew Debbie would gain delight and suffer loss. That doesn’t feel like the way a gift should be, but life is the strangest gift.

As I watched this gift of life unfold in egg hatching and chick growing and animal dying I thought about how it all–in hurt and hope, gain and loss–was a metaphor for the lives we have, what we have been given. When God gives us life, He gives the strangest gift. Our own life given to us is unasked, unexpected, and beyond our understanding. We marvel at the joy, struggle in the loss, in all things wonder why it is so that all the goodness and meaning of living  is mixed with the hurt. It is inexplicable that God would give us this strangest of all gifts–but when you find yourself giving an echo of that to someone you love then you understand something of why the strangest gifts are the best.

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September 24th, 2016.

It’s strange how life travels in full circles and what was is now reversed.

Ten years ago today I left home to begin caring for Grandpa in his Alzheimer’s journey. Now I am back to that old house, and it is home again. Time runs its path, but there are no words to easily grasp the decade which has slipped away.

A decade ago my younger brother Arlan had just finished college and was living with Grandma and Grandpa. He came home for a Saturday celebration of his birthday. It was a windy autumn day when he told me he had found Grandma crying that week, overwhelmed by Grandpa’s deteriorating condition. So began my journey of caregiving, one which took me through valleys I scarcely could have imagined a year prior.

The years passed. Arlan moved on from Grandma and Grandpa’s, and the rest of my family moved away from the old homestead. The place of childhood sat empty with overgrown lawns and abandoned fields. Arlan landed in California, the rest of the family settled deeper in the countryside of upstate New York. And somehow my circuitous path took me back to the old worn places of my childhood.

Life is different. They say you can’t go back again. You can’t. And you can. Familiar tracks can be traveled again, but the veil of time remains between now and former days.

Arlan flew in from California for a few days to celebrate his birthday with the family. On Friday he stopped by to check out the old place–home to myself now and once home to him. The two of us walked the field of our youth, now much overgrown, two men closer to middle age than to the season of childhood. Where we had once played in the grasses and weeds, saplings grew toward trees. In places thorns choked out the undergrowth. Curiously, where the older trees hid the ground in shade things seemed much unchanged, but in the field of sunlight life flourished and the world shifted almost beyond recognition.

The old plastic slide looked the same as always except for the absence of children. The forts built by little dreamers were much broken down. The old trail still etched its way up the field, marking the path where many wandering feet had trod. Things were so much changed, but the echo of what had been still remained.

Odd feelings come with such walks where the physical surroundings feel like a metaphor for my mind. Many people have died in the decade which has passed and their absence is felt like the cast-off leaves resting beneath the trees. I remember and feel that which is gone; the loss lingers strangely. And like the shadowed ground beneath old trees the memory of them remains unchanged. The rest of life has moved on, young trees hungrily reaching for the sun. Woven through it all is the echo of familiar things.

Where is my past self, running through the grass? Where is the boy who cut a path with his jackknife through the brush, creating a path for his wagon? What happened to the sticky summer days and the sweet wild strawberries? Strawberry Hill is lost in the locust saplings and the boy has run off through time’s doorway.

Age measures and marks us in ways too deep for easy scrutiny. I am older, perhaps wiser. A bit more broken, and a bit more whole. And I now see that answers can take the form of questions.

It startled me a bit to realize I am only a few years younger than my father was when he moved into this place. He seemed old to my child’s mind. Has time really moved that quickly, and what have I made of it? Or what has it made of me?

The years of a man are seventy, or eighty if he has the strength. When this autumn’s failing comes to its end I will have reached half of the former span. My strength hasn’t failed me yet, but my stiffness in the morning reminds me of more than autumn air. The body starts its betrayal early. The decades are short. Life is like a summer breeze that slips away to end in stillness.

I wonder about it.

Life and death are woven together in ways I wish I better understood. I find myself living in the midst of longing and promise which feels bittersweet and contradictory. We are bound by promises and loosed by death. In loss we know what we are given. There might be words for a poem in that. It is the riddle of the life I find myself living.

I can’t escape the paradox of how death delineates life. I’m not sure I should try. The tension first struck me when I began caring for Grandpa, a task of love and service I knew would not end until his death. Life felt marked in a way it hadn’t before. The reality brought a mindfulness both uncomfortable and grounding. Newly married now, I can’t avoid sensing the parallels, the promise of “Til death” still fresh from the lips. This bond of love is forged in a happier season, but all of life will not be sunny days. The last decade has taught me that. As surely as autumn follows summer, sickness follows health. In this life what begins will end.

Full circles. We laugh now, and build. But we see clouds on the horizon and feel the years in our soul. Having married a woman who lost her father early, we both know that life is different than childhood dreams would tell us. Still we love, and deeply, for it is love which will carry us through every turning until the final reprise.

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