Humbling

Crabapple tree broken at trunk and lying on the faded green of winter lawn, with street behind, houses visible on other side.
Fallen crabapple tree

On December 23rd, a severe rain and wind storm passed through Maine, after also creating havoc with storms and snow in other states. In the early afternoon, I was sitting in the living room, and suddenly heard some sort of clattering outside. I had previously gone out in the rain to right overturned trash barrels, and so I went out again to look around. At that moment, Margy was driving into the driveway from an appointment, and she asked me–did you see the crabapple tree? Going round the side of the house, this is what came into view: one of the ornamental crabapple trees in our front yard had suddenly cracked through its trunk and fell over. It didn’t land on anything or damage anything, which was a relief, but the tree was dead.

A couple hours later, our electric power went out, along with many other thousands in Maine–though only a segment of the people on our street. The thing with power outages is–you never know if it is going to be a brief interlude, a few hours, or a few days. You enter this limbo time of unknown duration. We waited until dark, and then lit our wood stove–thank goodness our house had this wood stove when we purchased it. It is a very fine wood stove, and it will heat the entire house when needed. We don’t usually use it except for emergencies. But in fact we had used it just a week ago when our heat pumps were being repaired. We have a few flashlights and candles, so we lit those too. And I could connect to the world via my cell phone, and Facebook.

However, I have to acknowledge that it felt very dark, the sun setting at 4 p.m., and not rising until about 7 a.m. Keeping up with wood in the stove was exhausting. It was hard to just relax with the uncertainty of it all. After a Friday of warm and windy rain, the temperature dropped on Saturday to a frigid 12 degrees. I was worried about our refrigerator food, and the freezer in our basement. I covered the freezer with a few blankets. I put the food from the fridge freezer into rubber tubs, and put them out on the back deck. Then, an unexpected grace–our neighbor Brian came by, and offered to run an extension cord from their house to ours–they had not lost power. So by this gift, we were able to plug in our refrigerator.

Before the storm, we’d purchased a round shrimp plate for a holiday treat–so Friday dinner was shrimp and cheese and crackers and cucumber and carrots. A little picnic. Margy had also boiled some eggs before the storm, and we had some sliced ham, so those were other meals that didn’t need cooking. On Saturday early evening, I got a text that the power should come back at 7 p.m., but then it did not. I felt such disappointment then, and crankiness, and boredom. Later, we tried to work on a puzzle, but without a good light source, it was mostly frustrating.

It is humbling to realize how difficult I found this time without electricity. I felt disconnected, restless, and bereft. I tried reading the book I had started a little while ago, but it was a heavy subject, and I couldn’t manage it in the midst of everything else. I missed the entertainment and mental stimulation of television or streaming channels like Britbox and Prime. I missed connecting to Christmas Eve services through Zoom. I felt at a total loss. I had imagined that as I grew older, I would become more resilient with age. But I see that I am perhaps less resilient after all, that I am vulnerable and dependent in many ways. When I went to bed, I felt defeated.

For whatever reason, I woke at 3 a.m. on Christmas, and couldn’t get back to sleep. I added a log to the fire, and wrote in my journal. I think then that I surrendered to the situation I was in–that here we were, in the dark, and we didn’t know for how long–and yet, we were warm, and we had food, and kind neighbors, and offers of support via Facebook. We were not alone. I thought about the people in Ukraine right now, also facing the loss of electricity in winter, and maybe no heat or water, along with the devastation of war and bombs–so much loss and uncertainty. I found myself praying for those folks who were facing so much greater hardships. I acknowledged my vulnerability and exhaustion.

By the time the sun rose, I felt peaceful sitting near the fire, drinking some tea after I’d managed to heat water on the narrow five-inch ridge on the top of the wood stove. I was still exhausted, still humbled by the difficulty of my managing in these circumstances, but somehow at peace with all of that. It would be a lie to say that I was not relieved when our power came back on at 10 a.m. But I am glad I came to some peace within my spirit before the end of our 44 hours without power.

Fire burning in the wood stove.
Advertisement

How to find the magic?

Evergreen tree inside our house, decorated with lights and little ornaments, with wood stove to the right in a brick hearth.

Almost Winter Solstice here! We got our first snow the other day, just a few inches, but enough to brighten the ground. It is good. It seems the long cold nights are infiltrating my spirit, and I feel weary. As I get older, it is harder to rejoice in the season of winter–ice has tripped me up on prior walks, and bruised my bones. COVID has limited our ability to welcome guests into our home, and it is too frigid for visits in the garden. Last week, our heat pumps suddenly stopped working, and we turned to our back-up boiler, but it seemed a little clanky from disuse, so we fired up our wood stove. That sounds cozy, but I find the wood smoke gives me headaches. (Thankfully, the heat pumps were repaired in two days.)

I feel old and cranky and tired with this season. It is ironic that pagan myths often assign this season to an old woman. I wonder if the winter crone is cranky? I am wrestling with how to find the magic of this cold dark season.

I didn’t really feel like getting a holiday tree. But Margy did, so we got this tree from our local food coop. I don’t feel guilty for it being cut, because it was grown for this purpose on an organic tree farm. Seeing how many seedlings try to grow into a new forest in our yard, I know that there can be an abundance of seedlings that naturally never grow up–so this one got to grow to eight feet and then be celebrated. I find myself surprised by how good it feels to have this little tree with us in the house, like a connection to the natural world during a time when that connection is harder to feel. I feel grateful to Margy for pulling us into its sweet magic.

That is my question. How to find the magic of this cold dark season? Can I quiet my mind, rather than merely entertaining it with stories in books or on screen? (though this has often been a season of stories) Can I open my heart, even if I am far away from most friends and family and other loved ones? (reaching out with letters and cards?) Can I embrace the sorrows and fears of age, of my age, my sorrows and fears, and give them a home in this moment? (hospitality has many forms) Can I embrace the silence? Let myself sink into it, floating down like a snowflake, bury myself in the silence like the plants are buried in snow? Silent night.

New Year Beauty

New Year Sunset with Margy

Margy and I watched the New Year sunset at Kettle Cove. It is one of the few beaches we know of on the east coast of Maine, where you can watch the sun set over the water, in winter.  (This is because the beach at that point faces southward, and the sun is setting further to the south than in summer–a perfect alignment.) In 2019, I intend to visit the ocean more often.  It is so close to us, and yet it is so easy to forget to drive 30 minutes to experience this beauty.

Despite all the hard things that are plaguing our beloved world, may we remember to seek out beauty and joy each day.  May we remember color and light and shade and darkness and shine and curve and flow and rhythm.

For Those Who Are Blue

Some ministry colleagues shared these beautiful poems, and I thought that there might be someone out there who needs them today.

White Candle MJ DSC09662

Sweetness by Stephen Dunn (from New and Selected Poems 1974-1994. Copyright © 1989.)

Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear
one more friend
waking with a tumor, one more maniac

with a perfect reason, often a sweetness
has come
and changed nothing in the world

except the way I stumbled through it,
for a while lost
in the ignorance of loving

someone or something, the world shrunk
to mouth-size,
hand size, and never seeming small.

I acknowledge there is no sweetness
that doesn’t leave a stain,
no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet . . .

Tonight a friend called to say his lover
was killed in a car
he was driving. His voice was low

and guttural, he repeated what he needed
to repeat, and I repeated
the one or two words we have for such grief

until we were speaking only in tones.
Often a sweetness comes
as if on loan, stays just long enough

to make sense of what it means to be alive
then returns to its dark
source. As for me, I don’t care

where it’s been, or what bitter road
it’s traveled
to come so far, to taste so good.

 

 

My Dead Friends by Marie Howe (from What the Living Do, © W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.)

I have begun,
when I’m weary and can’t decide an answer to a bewildering question
to ask my dead friends for their opinion
and the answer is often immediate and clear.

Should I take the job? Move to the city? Should I try to conceive a child in my middle age?
They stand in unison shaking their heads and smiling – whatever leads to joy, they always answer,
to more life and less worry. I look into the vase where Billy’s ashes were – it’s green in there, a green vase,
and I ask Billy if I should return the difficult phone call, and he says, yes.

Billy’s already gone through the frightening door,
Whatever he says I’ll do.

 

Blessing for the Longest Night by Jan Richardson (from The Cure for Sorrow
© Wanton Gospeller Press, 2016)

All throughout these months
as the shadows
have lengthened,
this blessing has been
gathering itself,
making ready,
preparing for
this night.

It has practiced
walking in the dark,
traveling with
its eyes closed,
feeling its way
by memory
by touch
by the pull of the moon
even as it wanes.

So believe me
when I tell you
this blessing will
reach you
even if you
have not light enough
to read it;
it will find you
even though you cannot
see it coming.

You will know
the moment of its
arriving
by your release
of the breath
you have held
so long;
a loosening
of the clenching
in your hands,
of the clutch
around your heart;
a thinning
of the darkness
that had drawn itself
around you.

Moon in branches DSC02496This blessing
does not mean
to take the night away
but it knows
its hidden roads,
knows the resting spots
along the path,
knows what it means
to travel
in the company
of a friend.

So when
this blessing comes,
take its hand.
Get up.
Set out on the road
you cannot see.

This is the night
when you can trust
that any direction
you go,
you will be walking
toward the dawn.

Waiting

After going back to the beautiful window house, we are feeling more confused than ever. We are hoping to simplify our lives, yet this house would need so much work before we could move in. And would it really get simpler after all that? I made a rough to-scale sketch of the floor plan, so we could try to imagine ourselves and our basic furniture fitting into the spaces, but there were complications there too.

As I fell asleep, I called to mind the face of my ancient grandmother who guides me, and it seemed she was shaking her head “no.” This morning I am also remembering that feeling confusion is itself sometimes a signal that the answer is no. If it were yes, there would be a sense of joy and clarity.

But letting go means leaping into the void–there is nothing on the market right now that fits the dream we created in our search for greener living. Still, that is the ultimate work of magic and mystery–to let our longings go out into that emptiness, and trust that the emptiness is like a dark womb in which beauty is born.  And so I leap into that void and wait. And the sun shines warm upon my face.

Later this morning, through the window I hear a ruckus and a loud chirping, and look to see a cardinal feeding her child. I am like that baby bird calling out and being fed by all that lives around me. I am like that mother bird, giving to the next generation in the ways I can. I am like the person who fills the bird feeder, making an offering to the cardinals who are beauty and hope in the flesh.Cardinal Feeding MJ DSC00761