Autumn Blues

DAY 15: BLUE
DAY 15: BLUE

Friday is usually errand day around these parts, the grocery store, a haircut (finally), and other customary preparations for the weekend. So you’re intent on hustling to beat traffic and store crowds, clutching your coupons and getting that bill payment mailed, when you glance out the car window and catch another crisp fall-blue sky in August, a phenomenon without precedent, a weather pattern warning, a menopausal woman’s delight, a sign very easily missed in humanity’s daily scurry and never fully appreciated until it’s gone.

This month I’m taking a photo a day and following the topics of Susannah Conway’s August Break 2014. And why don’t you join me? I double-dog dare you!

Morning Thunder’s Opening Day

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The first time I heard dawn’s crack of
sky-god bats, it was a long rookie year on the
Kansas plains, the west’s rocky range as an
impenetrable backstop. I woke up from dreams that
my old life had switched pitchers while a thunder-
shy farm dog back east grounded his trembling limbs
in my father’s lap, our dripping insecurities muffled
by the rain’s cheers for line drives on a new roof.

My eastern rules were not yet accustomed to
early steals by prairie storms, preferring to wait
until the baled hay was stacked high on base
inside some barn door’s afternoon yawn, rafters
rising over a stadium’s worth of ballpark food
for winter livestock. At storm’s peak, I still lingered
in the overhang, knowing my mother wanted
me safe at home in her worried dugout.

NaPoWriMo #3

I’m writing a poem every day in April as part of NaPoWriMo’s celebration of National Poetry Month. Won’t you join me in poetry?

10 Signs That Winter Is Over

Heady Hellebore
  1. You remember that your street has curbs.
  2. Ice melt is back in stock, as well as toilet paper, milk and bread.
  3. You regret that you put away the lawnmower without winterizing it.
  4. The power outage app is not perpetually open on your phone anymore.
  5. You start stripping off layers like a nightclub act.
  6. Seed catalogs are no longer a cruel joke.
  7. You can’t sleep in the morning with all the bird procreation outside.
  8. Everyone stops driving in the middle of the road.
  9. Your short male dog no longer has to be dragged outside to pee.
  10. You finally find your snow shovel.

On the Rebound

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The first Sunday of 2014 saw us knocking heavy snow off the bowing birches in our front yard, while wishing we’d flown south with the sandhill cranes heard above us on Christmas Eve. They had known what was coming, you see. In a few hours, those trees would lose their fight with winter’s version of gravity while the power snuffed out at our house, only to return three days later.

My family soon realized there were just two households affected in our neighborhood, and the grim waiting game began as we sat forgotten among the thousands without furnaces in subzero temperatures. I had always pictured an ice storm for this scenario, not the burden of wet snow chased by a polar vortex, so we had stocked up on food rather than firewood. Our neglected wood pile lay under a foot of white in our backyard tree line while my husband dug out what he could for a fitful night sleeping next to the smoky fireplace.

By the time a weak sun rose the next morning, arctic winds were howling and the house had reached an uncomfortable 50 degrees. Our plans shifted into survival mode. We moved refrigerated food into plastic tubs outside, drained the water pipes, and camped out in our kind neighbors’ family room for two more nights, while listening for a fleet of utility trucks that never came. During the day, we kept a fire going to keep the interior temps above freezing. At night we visited with flashlights to check the dark rooms for signs of distress, burglars in our own home while the Christmas lights next door mocked our misfortune.

On the fourth day, after the other powerless neighbor had successfully navigated the voicemail maze and filed a formal complaint, a lone utility vehicle appeared at the end of our street. My husband and I stood and waved in knee-deep snow like shipwreck survivors flagging down the rescue vessel.

It was a ten-minute fix at an electrical box. No storm damage, no sizzling power lines down, no underperforming transformers. Just a bad circuit and indifference.

Without life’s usual distractions (you know — like heat and water), I had a lot of time to sit around thinking about the irony of living in a civilized suburb where you give up your survival independence for assurances of a speedy recovery. The well-stocked woodshed and potbellied stove are traded in for that quick drive to the grocery store and treated roads. Isn’t infallible big city infrastructure supposed to trump those off-grid nonconformists?

And my old childhood issues of being different and singled out reared their ugly new year heads as I searched the foggy mists from burning wet wood. Instead of reading that long deferred book club choice, or knitting on my never-ending sock, I could only obsess over why this had happened to us and how we could have prevented our predicament, as if playing the role of model citizens who always pay utility bills on time and follow the suburban rules held any guarantees. We have become very good at minding our own business, beholden to no one.

Often the lessons I don’t want to learn are the ones I need the most.

If for no other reason, the tyranny of fate forced us to ask for help, a strange position for us, and neighbors across the street immediately responded. They took us in and shared their lives with people who live feet away and yet worlds apart. There were histories shared with food at dinner and fires stoked to warm relationships. They provided us with flashlights and guidance, outlets to recharge our batteries and spirits. The cleared path between our houses became comfortably worn.

And now with the usual expectations restored when we flip on a switch, our sense of importance is thawing while our complacency may not come back until spring. But that suburban isolation has fallen away as the snow melts and the unbreakable birches pick themselves up off the ground to freely wave their branches in the breeze once again, giving us back our view of the neighborhood, and our connection to community.

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The Wooly Worm Cometh

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I don’t usually see its kind around these parts. Most years I’m in my car, swerving to avoid these tiny crawling rugs in a foolish game of road roulette way off where the flat fields of harvested corn and beans have blown their covers. However dangerous the mission, they are determined to carry the weather forecast out there for us. You know the drill — the wider the middle stripe, the milder the winter.

But in my mind, there are always signs that don’t fit. What if there is no stripe! What if they’re all the same color! Is that the thinnest stripe, the widest stripe or worse than a stripe? Holy wooly mammoth, what if it means an ice age? Or a meltdown? How many degrees of misery are predicted per millimeter?

Alas, there is no answer when I ask aloud these questions and pile on all of life’s mysteries while I’m at it. The wooly worm is only the messenger.

Splitting Wood

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This happens every year. We endure winter’s cold regret and introspection so we can celebrate our budding optimism in the spring with a show of glorious anticipation. By summer, we are top-heavy with promise, ready to take the world by storm.

And then life does it for us. The winds come and twirl all those sweet green dreams around, while hard rain pounds away at purpose, and hail’s sharp teeth ruin whole canopies of desire, until we are felled by the sheer weight of so much arrogance. In the aftermath, our plans are collected like kindling for endless dark days of questioning ahead.

Come fall, we shall warm our hopes again in the bright flames outside diminished forests.

What the Groundhog Didn’t Tell You

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The cat didn’t see his reflection, either.

Okay, so Punxsutawney Phil and most of his rodent brethren predicted an early spring this year. His poor track record aside, you can’t deny the lengthening of days and the smell of thaw in the air. From precious offerings for protection of livestock (not necessarily groundhogs) to feasts celebrating a good lambing, this halfway point between winter solstice and the spring equinox has been as big a deal to the ancients as our Super Bowl rituals are to the sports obsessed (fair-weather halftime and commercial fans excluded).

I think modern folks can all agree, if they happen to look up from their mobile devices, that something is going on this time of year. There is the promise of love and/or bling on February 14th as well as the hope for a future tax refund. The weather maps show a good chance of enough rain to wash the road salt off the car. And I can always count on noticing the geese and robins, even though they’ve been around all winter or at least most of it. I want my indicators of spring to show up on my timeline.

At my house, our ancient corgi has rejuvenated herself enough to run pre-dinner laps again (no matter how wobbly or brief), while the cat who won’t step foot on anything white or wet has taken to poking his nose out the backdoor for a whiff of catnip to come. Late at night we hear him yelling disconsolately at a toy mouse that refuses to resurrect itself. Now there’s the spring-fever spirit.

This year, I have begun too many projects, always a good sign. Most of these could be fun, even. My own offerings of knitting, writing, sewing, pastel and music are lying about the house in various stages of address. I’ve signed up for a painting class, and made plans for a healthier diet and a big spring cleaning that will probably happen late summer.

There is no sure way to predict how this will all turn out, of course. The joy is in the process, the rush of potential and the good kind of exhaustion after a long day of using your imagination. The kind of tired you felt falling into bed as a kid. I have missed that.

As for assessing the whims of the gods, weather or otherwise, I have only this to say. The meteorologists are forecasting a big old nor’easter sweeping up the east coast later this week. And calling for the groundhog’s head.

Way to go, Phil.

The Day After

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Twas the day after Christmas and all through the town,

Not a thing was stirring — not even the snow plow.

Truly, they called in the road crews to put chains on their tires. We’ve already had more of the white stuff in one day than all of last year. No sooner is the path of escape cleared than it disappears under shifting frozen sands.

Whether modern civilization likes it or not, this is a day of frosty reflection. Forced into our manmade cocoons to watch the snow fly, we will have to wait yet another day for the return lines and fresh supply of toy batteries.

Can we enjoy what is disruptive? Can we appreciate the whims of an unpredictable track? This is our big moment to pause and consider the error of our way before a new year.

For sooner rather than later, a full cold moon will gleam down on the pristine chance of fresh starts.

Of Hurricanes and Halloween

With Sandy barely tickling these parts where I live, most of my energy has been spent worrying about the folks back east, the ones I know and everyone else.

I’ve become acquainted with a couple of hurricanes in my time — one of them intimately. In September of 1989, my husband and I rented a quaint, shingled cottage perched precariously by the side of a slow and lazy river in Maryland. (Here’s a renter’s tip: Never agree to anything after only seeing it at night. Works for dating, too.)

As we waited for word on where a certain hurricane named Hugo would choose to party, I began to pack some belongings for a stay in town at my husband’s office, which happened to be inside a college gymnasium.

Truth be told, we didn’t particularly look forward to a night spent in what used to be a ticket office, with a sticky vinyl couch, a dog, a cat and my unfinished Master’s thesis that was due in two days. Therefore, I was thrilled when I heard that the big boy would miss us.

So we stayed put, feeling smugly prepared as we battened down the leaky storm panels, and stowed away the furniture on a deck already sliding off the riverbank from erosion, confident that an extra bag of Fritos and a flashlight or two was enough. What can I say, we were young and immortal.

It was high tide, of course. As Hugo’s outer tendrils began to wander up the Chesapeake Bay, the full ramifications of our decision to remain began to slam into the house after gaining steam across a mile of open water. Even in his weakened state, our angry visitor began to pry at our windows and pound on the doors, pushing into our psyche with his howls.

As we cowered in the living room with our pets, electricity long since snuffed out, we could hear the boulders placed to prevent more erosion being moved like pebbles along the shoreline. I still remember looking out the window (this house’s foundation was less than a yard from the sandy bank) to glimpse the once flatline river now a roiling oceanic monster, chewing away at what little was left of the earth below us.

Suddenly mortal, we spent the long periods of rising winds debating what to do: remain on the first floor until the storm surge started to rush in, or head for high ground upstairs so that the large cedar tree next to our house could crush us?

Exhausted from waiting for windows to blow in, or water to pull our house down the river like Huckleberry Finn’s version of an amusement ride, unbelievably, we fell asleep.

In the morning, we awoke like Dorothy, inside a still house, lying upon the raft of our futon. A new sun sparkled in the beautiful blue of sky scrubbed clean by nature’s fury. The birds sang their good fortune in finding themselves alive, and all along the river lay miles of debris stacked up on the shoreline. Anything you have ever thrown away could be found there.

Despite the fact that the house was all but falling into the river, with a deck now cantilevered ten feet over the beach, we considered ourselves lucky and beat a hasty retreat well inland.

In the dark of night we returned to find the cedar tree that survived Hugo’s advances had fallen for a freak cyclone late to the party, missing our upstairs bedroom by inches.

That’s it, I announced to what was left of our peace of mind.

We’re moving into town.

A month later, we were caught unprepared by the hoards of trick-or-treaters knocking at the door of our safe house in town, tucked into a quiet street well away from Neptune’s reign.

After what we’d been through, facing the angry ghouls and ghosties of dry land just wasn’t as scary.

*My heart goes out to all those who have suffered terrible loss in this hurricane. This experience was but a fraction of what the victims of Sandy have endured.