Skerries we called them back on Scotland’s black and jagged coastline, these far-ranging rows of age-old rock stretching parallel to the shore and descending, sharp and menacing, to the water’s edge, and then beyond, emerging now and then from the green and ever mobile to and fro with a seething flash of white and an exploring colony of gulls, brown ducks, or a motley clutch of gossiping eiders. Far to the left, where stone is overcome by sand, Higgins Beach begins and a bobbing batch of black-clad surfers paddle off still searching for their perfect wave. Out there, farther than eye can scan, lies Europe. “On a clear day,” Mhairi and I will claim, “you can see Portugal.” And there are conditions when a bank of cloud on the horizon, or some faint mirage shaped on the distant gleam can seem the cliffs and headlands of Iberia. Time was when, sitting here, I might conjure up John Keats, seeing myself as bold, intrepid Cortez, silent, wondering on his peak in Darien. These latter days it’s old Ulysses comes to mind, as Tennyson has him, scanning beneath, beyond the arch of rich experience, yearning to launch one final expedition, to claim whatever still remains, set sail for distant Portugal.
Gun metal gray the sky this morning and along the shore at dead low tide an on-shore wind blows spume across the wave tops. Rain before dark, they say, and even some late snow to dash our dawning dreams of green and blossoming. Undaunted, a new pair of mallards— splendid headed male and female—inaugurate the new-thawed pool beside the dog run of our ocean-front retirement home. Silent, they move across, now venturing among the reeds to break their long migrating fast, and seek a secure nesting place to lay the future. Blessing their ancient quest, I call to mind one week ago, on this same daybreak dog walk, I was surprised, almost alarmed, by one great, stately snow white egret, with his mate, also foraging among the weeds, as the larger of them rose, spread his quite angelic wings, and wafted a bright unexpected blessing to my aging head, as he moved on in search of richer waters.
So Jesus’ wealthy friends did prove useful in the end. All four narratives seem to agree on this. Joseph, after all—the one from Arimathea, not his Dad— Joseph pulled strings with Pilate. Did he have to call in a few favors earned in questionable ways so he could claim possession of the corpse? Old Nicodemus too, Jesus’ night-shift friend from the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus makes his own fleeting reprise, carting along a ton—almost—of fragrant spices, nard and myrrh (again!), for preservation purposes. Although where he got such pricey stuff, late on a holiday Friday afternoon, is never quite explained. And that convenient, fresh-hewn, garden tomb; even back in the day, sepulchres such as those did not come ten-a-penny! Add in all the hired help they must have needed to get stuff from here to there and, of course, to roll and seal that massive rock . . . Whole thing makes you wonder—doesn’t it?— wonder if that narrow needle’s eye got prized wide open— camel-size, at least—to accommodate these late allies.
We practiced at “The Decontam”— clumsy name for an ugly place—bare concrete rooms buried beneath a protective pyramid mound of soil, turf, and God knows what, designated sanctuary nonetheless for any unlucky enough “in the event of nuclear attack” to survive the initial blast and burn to reach this subterranean space of hollow refuge. The Station Decontamination Centre—to rhyme the place in full, an—as yet—unfrequented location (praises be . . .) where, Tuesday nights, an ill-assorted crew of horns and woodwinds—sackbuts, cornets, clarinets, even the occasional bassoon—would fumble-stumble along through “Colonel Bogey,” “The RAF March Past,” old favorites from Gilbert and Sullivan, “Chu Chin Chow,” and Noel Coward, rehearsing for the CO’s garden party, full-dress dinner evenings at the Mess. They echoed so, those naked rooms and sounding corridors, as if our music might drown out—yes, decontaminate—the cold, blind fury cradled tight beneath the wings of our sleek avenging bombers; full squadrons perched above in laden readiness, paying no heed to our hapless melodies and marches.
This soot-dark smear across the brow, between the eyes, will lead you, if the way be clear, through all the endless winter of our year, toward an elemental table, the tears and savage hubbub of that agonizing garden, the treacherous courtyard, hilltop, nails and spear, the cry, the dark descending fear, and then another garden with a cave and such an austere emptiness will fill the rest of history with clear resounding alleluias.
I’m still looking, scanning, skipping right to the end at times, or settling for the gist on the first page, reading—more selectively across the years— but reading just the same, in the news and novels, articles and extracts, poems even . . . searching for the one, the word, the sentence that can tell me what it’s all about, why I’m here, will not be here much longer, where this morning’s golden-leaving autumn beauty comes from, why, and what it’s for, who thought this whole thing called existence up and maybe has a clue about its shape and size and possible duration. While all the time, beneath, behind, beyond the endless pages, the unrelenting streaming of the words, it unquestionably happens, keeps on happening, without any hope or need for explanation, moving on, while I stand wordless, gasping in its tumbling wake.
Even before D Day and the great emptying out of England's fields and hedgerows —one vast and camouflaged parking lot— onto the harrowed beaches of the French, even before those daily tidal waves of bombers bearing east about sunset to deliver our turn, even after the buzz-bombs, doodlebugs— names to tame them into toys they never were— came skittering across out skies in random hate, cigar ends glowing frightful in the dark, Mum and Dad decided that the cold and earthy damp of our backyard Anderson shelter posed more risk than the odd incendiary bomb. When the warning sounded from the factory roof they would bed us down beneath the tough oak table round which we ate our meals, wrote letters, diaries, drew and painted, did the homework we brought back from school—still sandbagged from the big one landing in the lower playground. It was the closest Dick and I came to a camping trip those confined cautionary years and whatever fears still lingered lay concealed beneath the tangled maze of bedclothes, pillows, table legs. "Is that the all-clear, Daddy?" we would ask of that second wailing siren, far later in the night, reassured and yet reluctant, somehow, to forsake the secret shelter of our cozy bivouac. Then back upstairs to bed, dread now, if not dissolved, deferred at least until some deeper, even darker night to come.
and we're off again with forehead freshly smeared and spirit seared anew by memories of dust, rumors of all or nothing up ahead. These frigid days and weeks lean inward, huddling for warmth, and disciplines attempt in vain to shape them toward value, meaning, promise. Warmth will, of course, return bearing its customary, temporary, blossoming. But all remains a stay of execution till the stone is rolled, those sentries flee, and startled women run with aching news.
So here we go again. The grit of darkened seasons past between the eyes, across the brow. The purple cloths of grief, tall cloistered candles, numbered days. Six more weeks of wintered trudging through a wilderness bereft of alleluias. All this to show that everything we know— and are—is dust and will return in just the way it came and always has come. Yet, here and there, bent brave above the snow the clustered Lenten rose bleeds color from pale sunlight, gently points itself toward a cross, an emptied cave, that bright unending summer glimpsed in childhood, and forever after longed for past the terminus of measured time.
These Yorkshire fells and dales appear ever to be falling away, toppling from Emily’s wuthering heights into wide accommodating valleys carved by Derwent, Calder, Ribble and the rest then trimmed by flocks of patient sheep that crop the slopes and shoulders round toward that verdant jeweled Jerusalem folk hereby love to sing about.
Up here, along the tops, however, driving tight along the teetering edge, mad vertigo hangs you out there in the balances, suspended in that stomach-clutching space between this summit and the next, flung far into the spinning turn, the terrible excellence of things.
Might it be that way also at the end, nothing all that dark and dreadful, but a life-demanding climb, agonizing to be sure, all the gasping way along and up some looming harsh escarpment grasping toward the final summit where, at last, you stumble forward into emptiness to find everything . . . all at once?
Close to an hour more of light since December’s solstice stood the calendar on edge, balancing my dwindling days between the here and the hereafter. This late January thaw has turned thoughts to spring again, those Holland-ordered bulbs I bedded late into November already showing green above the gray and crusted soil. You’d think, with seventy winters now beneath my crust, that I’d know better, learn to stay hunkered warm against those drifts that still must slump against the garage door. Yet an old, insistent summoning, wiser than winter’s experts, sends me back to the seed catalogs, makes me check trowel, fork and leaf mold, bends my head to bloom and blossoms yet unseen but lending never-ending fragrance to every lifeless, frigid scene.
These midwinter days that bridge Epiphany to Lent can seem anything but ordinary as the steady waxing light reflects across old December’s glaze of ice, a biting wind hisses across the stark bones of the bracken, and treetops signal sparse against a sky expecting still more snow before nightfall. Scarlet and speckled birds announce themselves about the brightness of the holly, spray from the creek creates bright frosted chandeliers among the tangled overhanging branches, and dusk draws down its spangling of stars so crystalline they lift the eye— heart too—toward a principality that banishes any vestige of routine predictability. Ordinariness exists—if at all— within the desiccated soul, too distracted by its fearful self to notice.
Spring did not officially arrive until two this afternoon, or so the weatherspinner had informed us, so that when, at morning prayer, my still wintered words were interrupted by a pair of honking calls, I laughed aloud to think that my Canadian neighbors of several springtimes had beaten nature’s clock by seven hours and more to seek their customary lot along the creek for hatching this year’s brood.
Minutes later—the creed and half a prayer, no less— and their first raucous pass to reconnoitre was followed by the splashdown run, low now across our deck and through the clustered trees onto that quiet pool stretching above the rapids where, over the next few days, they will be joined, most likely, by a familiar pair of mallard ducks who share their taste in shoreline real estate. Meanwhile a red-tailed hawk orbits high aloft in leisurely anticipation.
Even in Maine’s rain and fog I catch them, often in pairs, or waiting, patient, perched on a scarcely bending twig of our aged forsythia, then working the window box petunias till the coast seems clear, while I hover, motionless, on the shadowed porch, hungry for still another glimpse of ruby throat and emerald layered coat, the delicate dip of beak in cup, the tilted head, the blur of wings, that sudden flash of movement— now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t. Whatever it may be in me— some wandered/wondered child— that makes me watch and wait, this late, the daily hours to catch their, almost holy, visitations, I’m grateful for it, mindful too of one who, every once in a long while, still hovers back there just beyond, behind the nearest edge of solitude, or prayer, or even glimpses of the tiniest of birds.
This time of year, what with bulbs bursting through to light, crashing headlong into color, puff balls of sudden pink, cloud clumps of eager violet and white crowding, clustering, clambering up and along each naked stem and branch, what with the gray lawn’s sweet, impulsive greening, the chill creek’s snow-melt speedy surface coat of foam and flashing ripples, what with these birdsong brimming dawns, these chirping, marsh-born, peeper chants that hymn the day to rest, what with such hastening, glad abandon rushing, coursing, flooding, charging toward life, tales of a vacant tomb, of bindings cast like scattered husks and the rumbling of a cold, dead rock to clear the way for all that is to come, such tales seem almost natural. What else should we have expected, after all?
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