All Things Spare and Strange

Joshua Tree National Park under starry sky

In the desert

nightfall is a gift to the creatures

who burrowed below ground during the day,

sought shade in a juniper bough

or secret cave.

Now iguanas scurry

across red sand in the moonlight,

and rattlesnakes slither,

released at last from summer’s sun-stoked spell.

Cooling air caresses skin and scale,

and darkness opens wings –

jack rabbit aquiver,

owl silent on his pinyon pine perch.

Spider casts out her silks

among the cholla’s keen needles.

On a night such as this

who knows what prey

she might get,

silent and strange,

in her silver net?

Advertisements

The Gift of the Canyon

Morning sun and shadow in Zion Canyon

The first day in Zion our Road Scholar group walked on the canyon floor along the Virgin River, and I craned my neck to look up at a landscape unlike any I’d ever seen. Eons ago the sand dunes that covered this plateau petrified, and now the red rock walls towering above us offered a sense of the river’s long and languorous lovemaking with Navajo sandstone.

Early the next morning half our group began the hike up to Observation Point, knowing we would climb 2100 feet over the next four miles. The sun had yet to clear the eastern rim, so we walked in shade, bundled in warm clothes, just the twelve of us as opposed to the hundreds we’d encountered the day before. The trail was mostly wide and even as it switch-backed up the canyon wall and offered sweeping views down to Weeping Rock where we’d begun and across the canyon to the western wall. I fell into a slow and steady pace.

Echo Canyon

Perhaps an hour into the hike, the trail turned down a gorge called Echo Canyon into a scene so surprising and lovely that it stopped me in my tracks. Instead of being on the edge of a canyon wall I was suddenly inside, folded into the curves and undulations of stone, which were touched in this moment by the sun’s first tender kisses on red rock and secret pools.

It took nearly three more hours to reach Observation Point. As the group spread out, I often walked alone, up, up, up, taking breaks to peel off layers, drink water, and look at the desert world around me – slickrock paintbrush growing improbably out of a crack in the rock and striations in the curved canyon wall that I paused to study as I would a work of art in a museum. At one point I heard rumbling nearby and with the instincts of a city girl whirled around looking for a truck almost in the same instant that I realized how ridiculous that was. Instead, somewhere close but out of sight, rocks were crashing down the hillside. This is unstable country, I remembered our geologist guide saying. Was I about to be buried in an avalanche? The clatter faded. Or had Tom hiking somewhere ahead of me been hit by falling rock? I pressed on. Eventually the trail leveled off, and I came out to the point, where I found the rest of the group safe and sound. At 6500 feet we snapped photos and enjoyed stunning views down the canyon.

Mary at Observation Point

In the following days, as I hiked in Bryce, the Valley of Fire, and Red Rock Canyon, my thoughts kept returning – not to the height I’d attained at Observation Point, but to the quiet moment when the trail veered into Echo Canyon. What was it about that place? I guessed it was the intimacy of the lusciously curved red rock walls surrounding me. We’re used to being onthe earth, but in that passage of undulating stone I had the sense of being init. Unlike in a tunnel or cave, though, I was immersed instead of enclosed, in the light instead of in darkness. Maybe this glimpse of geologic time, a peek at eternity, hints at what the cave of the heart looks like.

Never Again

On the day of the student walkout to protest gun violence, I was scheduled to staff the reference desk at ten a.m., a responsibility I could not reasonably forego. Early in the morning, I huddled with other staff. What could we do in the library? Lakshmi suggested we use our new intercom system to ask for a moment of silence. This might sound oxymoronic in a library, but at ten in the morning the Foothill College library is bustling with students checking out books, asking questions at the reference desk, and chatting with each other. Nevertheless, we agreed to try it.

And so, as hundreds of students, faculty, and staff streamed out of their classrooms and offices and headed to Cesar Chavez Plaza, I heard my own trembling voice echo through the library, “In memory of those who died in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School one month ago, please join the library staff in standing for a moment of silence.” The names of the seventeen victims stood on a list at the reference desk, remembered now by strangers here on the other side of the country from where they fell. I looked around. Some students went on about their business, but many others took a break from their books, devices, friends, and together we all stood without speaking or doing. I let two minutes pass before I switched the intercom on again, thanked everyone, and reminded them of the gathering in the plaza.

Over and done, but outside was a different story. Not two minutes, but seventeen. One minute for each life lost on February 14th. A minute is nothing compared to a life, and yet, it is something. Those holding silence were not monks or hermits, but young people bursting with energy, community college students juggling classes with jobs and families; they were professors accustomed to lecturing, for whom every minute of class time is precious, needed for the knowledge they want to impart and the experiences they want to create for their students. Friends who were there later told me that a sociology professor tolled the minutes with a Tibetan singing bowl, and each minute more people streamed into the plaza. Wind blustered, footsteps fell on pavement, bodies shuffled, but no one spoke as the bell resounded across the crowd.

This had been happening since seven a.m. when the walkouts started on the east coast, a wave of silence sweeping across the entire country. Honor and protest and hope are the gifts of those seventeen minutes, multiplied ten thousand times. May the silence bear fruit.

The Untrimmable Light

The waning moon has sunk into the sea,
and the leaves of the fig tree tremble
in the zephyr come to rustle
the darkness from this mild winter night.
All across this mountain,
through a sunny autumn
and into a dry December,
leaves cleaved to their life-sustaining branches
beyond all reason,
but now,
now a storm is coming.

Raindrops patter on the roof
like the footsteps of exiles,
but then retreat.
Not yet! Not yet!
For a moment the wind holds its breath.
Hills and coastal plains thirst in silence,
and fading leaves await the fateful tug.

All day long clouds flirt with the sun,
and sometimes their private laughter
spills showers from above,
but the deluge does not come.
Instead, across sky and sea,
past fig leaves fluttering in the afternoon breeze,
through the window of my cell at New Camaldoli,
a sunbeam finds my notebook and me.
Leaf shadows dance a mad jig on the wall,
but a poet’s in the spotlight:
the page aglow tells it all.

Title from the poem “Mindful” by Mary Oliver.

Gezouten Boter

cheese market in front of the Gouda City HallThe first cookies I baked when I moved to The Netherlands came out of the oven flat, not just in shape, but in taste. Part of the problem, I discovered, was the flour, which is processed differently than in the States in a way that reduces the amount of gluten, and part of the problem was the butter. At home I took it for granted that our default butter is salted. Back in the eighties and nineties an American baker had to go out of her way to find what we call sweet butter, but in Holland the default butter is unsalted. Dutch salted butterIt took several tries before I realized that all my recipes assumed the dash of salt from the butter in addition to the teaspoon explicitly stirred into the cookie dough, and I learned to seek out gezouten boter in a larger store than the corner grocery. And what about the flour? For special-occasion desserts it was worth driving to The Hague (home of the country’s embassies and hence a city  that caters to foreigners), to the import shop I’d heard about through the American grapevine, where I spent way too many guilders for a pound of Gold Medal flour from home.

Pumpkins and turkeys were also absent from Dutch grocery stores, but Americans abroad are resourceful when it comes to our holidays. Each fall a few members of the American Women’s Club of The Hague drove across the border to a farm  in Belgium that grew pumpkins and returned with a carload to resell as a fundraiser for the club. I often wondered what my neighbors in the little village of Waddinxveen thought about the jack-o-lantern gleaming from my window on October 31st.

Waddinxveen, small as it was, boasted a poultry shop, and my first November there I timidly inquired about procuring a kalkoen. The poulier’s face lit up, and it became clear he’d recognized my American accent. “It’s for your harvest celebration, isn’t it? I’ve heard of this!” He didn’t carry turkeys, but could special order one for me in time for the holiday. As he scribbled my information on an order pad, he asked what I’d be serving with it. “Aardappelen en …” Hmm, my Dutch vocabulary did not yet include words like stuffing and cranberries. Over the next years, he came to recognize me. “Ah, mevrouw Thomas, here for your oogst kalkoen, eh?”

Mary and table set for Thanksgiving dinner

I began my married life in Holland, and those years were my first attempts at cooking a Thanksgiving dinner myself. At first, it was just my husband and me, but each year we found more American friends to celebrate our holiday with in a country where the fourth Thursday in November is an ordinary workday like any other. With our homesickness like salt in the dough, friends became family around a table, a turkey, and blessing: a little island of home in the Dutch sea.

 

 

Your Mirror

oak tree

From root to crown

the oak tree gives You glory,

in sap and leaf

on branches

where squirrels play

and the bluejay squawks his morning joy.

Light becomes food,

water and sugar into sap

and acorns,

autumn harvest for

crow, squirrel, human,

and a gift to the earth

that may sprout a seedling in the spring.

 

A pair of doves build a nest here,

make love, make eggs,

chicks hatch,

fledglings test their wings,

and seedlings grow

in the shade of their mother.

 

Leaf,

star,

woman

looking out her window at dawn –

what do we have in common?

When the body becomes Your mirror,

leaves drink light,

and I make it into a song of praise.

 

(Title from a poem by Mahadeviyakka)

News of the World

It is ironic that a librarian, whose business it is to provide access to information, suffers from the soul sickness of TMI (too much information). This addiction can be as intoxicating as caffeine and edge-softening as alcohol, but it does not feel like an indulgence. Rather, it is the obligation of a responsible citizen and a thoughtful friend, the satisfaction of healthy intellectual curiosity, even an aid to spiritual seeking and nourishment for the poet.

But there are only 1440 minutes in a day, so how can I choose between the New York Times and the Santa Cruz Sentinel, email and Facebook and all the blog posts, articles, and websites my friends refer me to? Should I give up Jane Hirschfield’s essays on poetry, Sue Monk Kidd’s memoir of searching for the sacred feminine, or Cynthia Bourgeault’s thoughts on the meaning of Mary Magdalene? And don’t even get me started on all the tantalizing sources in their endnotes, not to mention the professional reading I should keep up with! iPhone, iPad, laptop, Nook, books, and magazines fill my rooms and days, and if they’re not enough, the library, internet, and Amazon offer ready access to more.

Now, here I am on a writing retreat outside Pescadero, in a sunny clearing among the trees, my body still tingling from a swim. The redwood over there hasn’t read the latest appalling tweet from him who shall not be named, and Spider is writing her own poem in a web strung between two branches that sway on the breath of God. It’s true that here too is more information than I can take in or understand, but it does not insist on my attention in the way newspapers and social media do because it was not created for my consumption. Everyone is going about their own business here, ten thousand leaves drinking up sunlight while the butterfly finds nirvana in a dahlia and the laughter of naked ladies drowns out the sound of jet engines overhead.

Belladonna lilies

I take off my sandals to put my feet directly on the earth. My soles read warm ground and soft green grass, an engrossing piece that invites a great deal of attention. A breeze lifts my sun-dried hair off my neck, and the redwood across from me nods companionably – she knows just what this feels like. “In the name of the bee – and of the butterfly – and of the breeze,” this is all the news of the world my soul needs.

(With appreciation to Paulette Jiles for my title, Emily Dickinson for the invocation in the last line, and my friend Ursi Barshi for the photo.)