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If you are following this blog of mine I would like to direct you to my new blog address for recent posts and updated content:
Thanks for reading!
Solstice. Just before Christmas and our tree is up, shining with lights in the darkness which is profound, this shortest day of the year.
I arose in the darkness and sat with it this morning, kept a close eye on it as it gave way to dawn. I plan to bundle up and walk in the woods today. The day may be overcast—but it will be far from gloomy in there. Close, dim perhaps; but not depressing. The woods at the darkest time of the year feel majestic, full of secrets.
Later I’ll listen to music, maybe even get out my guitar and play. I should bake something too, in the longstanding tradition of my people at Christmas, a rite that I’m certain goes back much further than I can see, beyond my mother and my grandmothers, beyond the women whose names are on the recipes handed down to me: Martha, Diatha, Leah, Opal.
It’s still a mystery, my descent from my ancestors, how my life is linked to so many generations before me, as life itself is a mystery, how the light comes back every year, finds us again and the new year begins. It’s just the Christian calendar, a Chinese-American friend said to me once. She was referring to the millennium, as I recall, and dismissing it as a purely Christian invention, and of course she was right—at least, about the year 2000. But the Christian calendar is overlaid on something more ancient, the Gregorian on the Julian, both of them working from the sun and starting the new year soon after the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice—observed and celebrated in pre-Christian times. I think of the standing pillars of Stonehenge, arranged to frame the arc of the sun on its shortest journey of the year and constructed at least 4,000 years ago. During the middle ages many western European countries actually started the new year on December 25th, marking the birth of Christ and closer to winter solstice. (When reforming the calendar and lopping off days to get back into alignment with the sun, Pope Gregory held onto the Roman convention of the New Year beginning on January 1.)
Like the calendar many of the holiday festivities, the decorations and the carols are older than Christianity. Now and then I peek behind the “Christmas” veneer and see my pagan ancestors. Celebrating Yule, for instance—it’s not a Christian festival, but the word’s been co-opted as if it means Christmas. I listen to the carols and ancient voices call out to me, singing about the greenwood as if it’s a very real, specific place; singing of dawn breaking and deer running. They had a lot to say and to sing about, it seems, at this shortest day of the year, even without the addition of a prophet from the middle east.
Some of the Christian lyrics build on the happy spirit of revelry (in fact carols were originally dances) and call out for beneficence, and for understanding among people, and who can argue with or complain of that? Other lyrics simply recount the Christmas story: the star, the kings, the birth of Christ; and often each bit of story is tied to something still green and growing, like holly, that one might find on a winter ramble in the wood.
And I come back to where I began: Today I want to walk in the woods, whether dim or shot through with the rays of the low-sailing sun, where people for thousands of years have felt close to the mystery, the unknowable. The trees that outlive us, the ground we will return to, the bits of green that always survive the frost. The rising of the sun, and the running of the deer.
Our roots are long, long as the shadows this time of year.
Surfing channels the other night we got stuck on a home improvement show and before leaving TV behind for sleep we witnessed the woes of a family whose kitchen layout was so awful, their stove was crammed into an alcove by the back door. Lying in the dark coming out of dreams the next morning I was picturing my grandmother’s kitchen, trying to remember: where was the stove? I got it in place against the wall shared with the living room; next to it, the fridge. Then the doorway through to the front of the house; and I went around the room like that, filling it in, nailing it down. Like staking out a tent before you go inside.
As I worked my way around the walls things came back to me. I couldn’t actually see the stove, or its color—probably white, definitely electric—but I remembered that Grandma used to store crackers in the oven. Club crackers, my grandparents liked. I guess they stayed fresher behind the oven door and its seal.
Atop the fridge were two ceramic roosters—well, actually a rooster and a hen I think, one being large, the other small. I have them now; they have red-painted combs, gray and white feathers, ochre-colored feet standing in matching clumps of green. You should always have a rooster for your kitchen, I think I remember my grandmother explaining. Certainly no farm would be without one, and she did start life on a farm.
Passing the fridge and the doorway in my mind I turned to the north wall; up against it, the kitchen table. Very 1950s, it was chrome and cornflower blue formica and suddenly I was seeing the blue light in the kitchen, on a winter morning. From my highchair pulled up to the end of the table I could see out, see the snow drifted and heaped everywhere, piled on the sills of the screen porch beyond the back door. The light is sudden and fierce, almost scathing, bouncing off the snow and into the room.
Behind me in the corner there is some kind of electric roaster, a behemoth that sat on its own cabinet, the kind of kitchen fossil that I imagine a lot of women of my grandmother’s age had standing around. Above it, the black telephone, mounted on the wall. I remember my grandmother talking on the phone. My grandfather almost never did—his hearing was bad, and he was telephone-averse. But I can hear my grandmother’s voice, clear, echoing just slightly in the open room with all its hard surfaces, and I remember the lilt in her voice in just the single word, hello. When she answered the phone she did not ask a question: “Hello?” Who are you? Instead she sang, gently: “Hello!” I am here.
She was there, they were both there, as was I. As I work my way around the kitchen I take on this feeling of my grandparents and their lives, a slowness and a kind of solitude but also presence, intention. Without the distraction of electronics, email, smartphones, cable, so unlike my life today. I remember how my grandparents turned on the television to watch a particular “program,” as my grandmother called them, Lawrence Welk or the evening news. Grandma liked to watch a John Wayne western if one was on.
My circuit around the room takes me along the eastern wall, passing the door to the porch with that winter light streaming in like an ice-bright river and next to the door the sink, framed on both sides by cupboards, above and below. I can’t picture the curtains in the window over the faucet, but suddenly I see a pale green, the cupboard doors or the walls must have been painted that hue. Then I’m seeing wallpaper, a pattern comes almost into focus: neutral tones, flourishes and a spice grinder. I think it was on the wall over the table.
On the fourth and last wall, more cupboards and then the washing machine. This is a small house, my grandparents’ place, even though the kitchen feels large and open in my childhood memories. But there is no basement or utility room, so the washer is here and the dryer is in the attached garage, beyond the dining room. When it’s really cold outside Grandma will open the small closet next to the washer (I can see the door, it’s louvered), take out a Pendleton shirt hanging on a hook there, and put it on before she carries the clothes out to the dryer.
I feel how big the day was, opening up before us on a bright winter morning. I see my grandfather take up his coffee cup (and it was a cup, sitting on a saucer), I hear the sound of my grandmother’s chair scraping softly on the floor as she gets up to take dishes to the sink. They did not rush, or hurry. I realize that they were retired; but I believe their calm ways and measured pace had as much to do with who they were and the world they came up in as with circumstance.
Breakfast in the kitchen. I turn the memory over and over in my mind and study it like a small but endlessly faceted diamond, and in that expanse of time there is something vivid and real that I have trouble finding in my life today: that slow, deliberate act of living even in the smallest things, especially in the smallest things.
I had a dream last night. I was at a gym or a rec center, trying to sort out my gear which seemed to be spread all over the place when a custodian cautioned me to mind what I was doing, he wouldn’t want to have to call my parents. My parents? I shot back at him. My parents?! I’m fifty! I yelled.
Actually, I’m over fifty—but anyway, I made the point. Just recently I’ve begun to think that I now have the years on me to have experienced some things, and even chew them over for a while. It turns out a lot of stuff happens in fifty years, even in a fairly ordinary life like mine. In fact, everyone’s life, including mine, has remarkable moments. I think I had to get to fifty, almost, before I could even recognize this, or see them—the remarkable moments—for what they are.
Yesterday I stood at the big window over the staircase at the library, a wall of windows really, looking out on the garden under a thin blanket of snow: beds with huddled stalks and clumps of old plants draped in white, the sculpture (of a boy, balancing on a ball) and the benches anchoring the paths, the big spruce trees towering over all, lending scale. Beyond the garden I saw the ravine where the Paint Creek runs by, the far side rising steeply, all snow and a tangle of dark branches. The sky above the pointy tops of the spruces was gray but still light was flooding the immense window this cloudy November day.
I stood there just looking. In fact I’d only run in for a minute and I had no business on the second floor but I’d climbed the steps to the landing anyway, just to stand at the window and look out. Two boys half-ran, half-stumbled through the garden, scooping up snow and throwing it at each other in barely formed missiles. I could see they were laughing as they disappeared beyond the corner of the building. I went back to gazing at the sky, the spruce trees, the far bank of the ravine so dramatic in snow. Last winter while sitting at a table by a window upstairs I saw deer over there.
I stood looking out as people went up and down the stairs behind me and I was overwhelmed with the thought: all of this is so beautiful and often we give it the merest glance, going back and forth, on our way to and from. I’ve admired the view from the library stairs before but still it seemed a rare occurrence, to feel so strongly about it. I had the thought that maybe I was feeling something similar to what people who have had a reprieve feel, after their cancer has disappeared or their heart stopped and was re-started or they survived the plane crash.
I haven’t lived through any such dramatic turn of events, but I know this: I’m over fifty. To and from?
This is to, and from. This is where I was going. This is where I begin.
Early morning at the cottage. In summer this time of day is so utterly peaceful, sitting on the porch with coffee, watching the dawn come up slowly. Hearing the birds all around, listening to the water. The smell of pine. The promise of a summer day on the Bay.
But it’s late October and pitch black outside. I opened the back door, went out and checked the temperature (nearly 50°—not bad) on the thermometer that hangs on the pine tree. How long has a thermometer been there? I can’t say; decades at least, maybe longer than I’ve been on the planet. The tree, definitely longer. I measured it two years ago to estimate its age: ninety-something. Only a few feet from the back door, I fear we will have to take it down if we build even a slightly bigger place.
Despite the dark mornings, which do seem sudden and mournful, fall is beautiful here. Driving up to Bellaire yesterday from M72 there was lots of color, bright maples and birches mixed with the dark of pines all along the road. Near Mancelona a small mountain rose from the plain, all covered in red and gold and saddle-brown.
Driving from Bellaire to the cottage up around the end of Torch Lake was even better. The highway twists and turns, rolls up over hills and dips back down, crossing glacial moraines: the piles of silt and stones the glaciers left here as they retreated from what is now Lake Michigan. I had a series of vistas: a carpet of green field running up to a calico frieze of woods; a country lane lined with yellow maples winding away towards a distant, checkered hill; horses grazing behind a ramshackle fence, the trees glowing crimson and yellow beyond them. The road showed me these views and put them away again, like shuffling photographs—such is the speed at which we move, in cars. But even on foot I know the views would change coming around a bend, going up and downhill. I would just have longer to study each picture before it disappears into memory.
Into memory. The sun was out, and even though I was traveling at close to sixty miles an hour, I gathered and will hold onto these images through the long months away from here, the perfect gold of a sugar maple something to gnaw on this winter, like a dried husk or some prize kernel stashed away. (We are more like squirrels than we care to admit, I think.)
I see some light is just now beginning out the picture window, a deep blue color—almost like peering through water. I feel like I’m looking through the glass wall of a big aquarium, as if fish might swim by, darting in and out the trees. There’s still no wind; and I think, why shouldn’t I put my coat on and go out, as in summer? Sit in the half-light (not even—quarter-light) with my coffee and drink in the quiet one more time.
Winter will be long. I will miss this place.
Lucy and Callie have a project they’ve been working on: they’re trying to catch a fly. I watched them chase it all over the house yesterday, tearing around and jumping into the air. Callie took a big leap mid-stride, launching herself high above the furniture, but still the fly evaded her. A few minutes later she jumped up on the kitchen counter to follow it when it buzzed up against the cupboard doors. She ignored me even more than usual when I told her to get down.
Then the fly got trapped against the living-room slider and I watched both cats stretch up and pat the glass, trying to bat it down or catch it under a paw. The fly buzzed over and touched down momentarily on the TV screen, and Callie jumped up on the cabinet and—bam bam bam, hit out lightning-fast with her paws in all directions, her long front legs flying. Professional boxers got nothin’ on her.
Feline reflexes are so fast, it occurs to me that cats would be really good (but also spectacularly bad) at a number of human activities, things like soccer, or driving. Very quick when braking, turning and swerving; but can you imagine what would happen when a flock of birds swoops down over the highway or the playing field? Or when somebody suddenly needs to wash? Which happens all the time. They’ll be running full-tilt across the floor and—oh, need to wash. Must stop and lick my shoulder…
But back to the fly. As far as I know, it remains at large—at least, after I got in bed last night I could still hear Lucy and Callie bumping and thumping around after it. I believe they will have the project to occupy them again today, provided the fly has not expired. It makes me think of the article I was reading in my alumni magazine when they first began. The title was “Dare to Fail: Why Success Requires Taking That Leap.”
I have to admire them, our cats. They love to leap. And they are not afraid to fail.
Hard to recognize it as beach, these days. Granted, this is the most grown-in spot. The small creek that drains the swamps behind us comes out here, cutting a green path through the sandy bank between woods and waves. By late summer the stream mostly dries up; but after the heavy rains we had the first week of September it was once again flowing freely, dropping in a series of miniature waterfalls to join the waters of the Bay.
While this is the greenest spot, all of my beach is growing in. Sometimes I mourn the loss of bare sand and stones—of “real” beach. The other day, though, I paused at this spot and started thinking, wondering: How many plants are growing right here, within arm’s length? Within a step or two?
I decided to investigate. I got a measuring tape and four sticks and staked out a small plot, four feet by four feet, right at the edge of the water. And then I looked inside.
Peppermint (the purple flower), surrounded by something else. (?)
More mint and asters, silverweed (the short, leafy plant that looks a bit like strawberry—it has bright yellow flowers in the spring), Baltic rushes and a wild tangle of roots, exposed by the waves.
Grass-leaved goldenrod (I think).
The segmented, reedy-looking plants are scouring rushes. As kids we used to pluck one now and then and pretend to smoke it (the tiny cone on the tip looks a bit like the ash on a cigarette.)
In my four-by-four plot I also found a bit of Queen Anne’s lace, a second variety of goldenrod, a small purple flower I’ve not yet identified and something that looked like a willow. All together I could distinguish thirteen different plants; I’m sure a trained eye could identify more. A few steps away, higher on the bank there are growing several kinds of grasses, two or three varieties of thistle, beach pea and even a few white pine seedlings.
It can be easy to fall into the habit of thinking of all of this growth, sprouted up in the last decade or so, as a nuisance. The twisting roots and dense foliage make it hard to walk the shoreline in many places, and leave precious little space to spread out a towel or set down a few beach chairs.
But framing the picture differently (literally reframing it, using my artificial four-by-four boundaries), looking in and peering closer, I see things in a new way, appreciating the incredible variety of living things at the water’s edge. As if to emphasize the point, while I was crouched there with my notebook a fat bumblebee came by and stopped momentarily in my study plot,
A glorious tangle.