October Afternoon

October Afternoon

October afternoon with the sun’s rays
strong upon a cluster of brilliantly luminescent red-gold trees,
light seeming to glow from within each leaf,
it’s peak time in upstate New York.

One tree stands far apart from the others,
stripped of all its beauty with the exception of one branch,
even more striking in its aloneness, its disparity and exclusion
from the surrounding autumnal displays of glory.

Losing does not indicate weakness here but pride.
“One does not give up until it’s time,” it seems to say.
Surviving recent strong winds and heavy rain,
this one branch hangs on for one more day
until one leaf after another will drop,
leaving behind a strong trunk and roots that will herald new life come spring.

Whispering in the wind, it softly states,
“Beauty is not in what was lost but in what remains.”

“To Everything There is a Season”

“To everything there is a season, a time to every purpose under the heaven.”

When I was young, I cherished a book I read called To Everything There is a Season.  I think it was some kind of romance.  I don’t remember the plot but I do remember the quotation in the beginning of the book.  It was from the Bible, and I remember going to my Bible and looking up the entire verse, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.

Since then the quote has stayed in my memory, taking me through rough times and enriching the good ones.  When I was first married, one of my favorite songs was “Turn, Turn, Turn” (originally written by Bob Seeger) based on the Bible verse and recorded by the Byrds.  It seems to make sense that there is a right time for everything, and if we accept that, we can live through life’s challenges.

I think about this a lot as the seasons change.  The dying of the leaves, green changing to gold, then a flutter to the earth, a disintegration.  Soon we are held hostage to winter by enticements, hot cocoa, cider donuts, long quiet evenings by the fireplace.

Maybe it’s the expectation of the changing seasons we need in order to endure, just waiting and longing for the purple crocuses to show through the white snow or the first robin, the leafing of the trees.  We need the seasons, and there is no better way to know them with all their brilliant gifts and all their painful losses than to be a northeasterner.

Still sometimes grief grips tightly, holding on when we think it should be gone amid the sweet fragrances of spring and the softness of languid, summer days.  Then a leaf turns and falls, the skies are quiet, devoid of bird song, expectancy of spring changes to reluctance of fall in spite of what it tries to offer us.

Don’t be fooled, we tell ourselves, by the warmth of the fire that follows biting winds, icy air and driven snow, chilling our bones before the thawing.  And so we wait for hope with its elusiveness and evanescence, aware of its deception.  Sometimes there is just no nepenthe for grief.

To everything there is a season,
a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to get, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Photo Wikipedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Four_seasons.jpg

September Mornings

September Mornings

September mornings are resplendent with the changes autumn brings.  Maybe it’s the way the tangerine sky peeks through the pine trees as dawn predicts a new day.  Maybe it’s the discordant sound of the crows cawing into the crisp morning air.  Maybe it’s the way the light plays off the yellow-tinged edges of the ash and maple trees.  We can feel the season change in spite of our wishes.  I love autumn but not the certainty that winter will follow.

New York’s autumn brings apple picking and cider and donuts, falling leaves and chrysanthemums, football games and candy apples.  It’s far too short a season, sandwiched in between the long, lingering summer heat and the even longer cold, snowy winter days and nights.  We eventually adapt to the seasons themselves; it’s the moment of change that trips us up.  Just as we get the routine down, we need a new one.

Autumn’s glory is brief.  Soon wintry air will bring hibernation, an end to leisurely walks, bringing instead hurried steps toward the warmth of the house, to coffee and pancakes and comfort.

September mornings dawn with a splash of color and crispness to the air, waking us to a new season filled with the unknown.

Foxy Females

Every morning for the past week screams have pierced the pre-dawn hours in our quiet neighborhood.  We don’t have much crime here, so I immediately dismissed the thought that a woman nearby was being murdered, even though the screams were very female-like.  The first morning I heard the screams at 4 a.m., I jumped out of bed thinking some kind of animal fight was occurring in our front yard.  I put on the porch light and there under the big pine tree stood a fox screaming her little heart out.  After some research, I realized that it was a female seeking a mate.  This is apparently what the female fox does—she screams until a male fox hears her and comes running.

I wonder how unlike human nature this really is.  Maybe we females don’t actually scream (although for some of us, it’s a way to let out all our frustrations), but we do go to great lengths at times to attract the opposite sex.  The first morning the screams lasted about twenty minutes before the fox moved down the street.  The following mornings the screams shortened in duration.  This morning I did not hear her.  So now I’m wondering if she actually found a mate.  Maybe she just went elsewhere to look or maybe she just gave up.

Our street is located off another road called Foxwander.  At some point in the past, someone probably noticed screaming foxes and decided to name a street after them. When we first moved here, it was only a fleeting thought on my part that we might actually encounter a fox in our back yard while sitting on the deck or working in the garden.  At that time, we even had a cat that liked to roam at night.  We were taking a chance allowing her to be out there with the foxes.  Still she apparently never encountered one.

A few of my neighbors have mentioned fox sightings, a fox just strolling down the middle of the road.  But the screams were new to me.  Once I knew what they meant, they were not quite so frightening. She was just doing what females do–trying to get the attention of a male.  I hope she had some success.  I still wake up around 4 a.m. every morning now and listen for her.  It’s peaceful then, just before the birds start their morning songs.  I guess they too could be singing for a mate.  I’d rather think they were just happy, whether they had a mate or not.

Nature’s Etiquette

“Great difficulties may be surmounted by patience and perseverance.”
—Abigail Adams

Nature’s Etiquette

In the quiet of the morning,
the garden dormant this time of year,
life centers around the feeders and the suet cage
where squirrels hang upside down,
back feet splayed out on the bark of the pine tree,
front feet holding steady the suet feeder
for long stretches of time.

Somewhere in the forest the woodpeckers wait.
Their moment at the feeder will come soon, they know,
their patience a valuable lesson to those who watch.
The two downy woodpeckers come first,
their velvety black and white patterned bodies
striking against the stark grayness of winter,
one attaching himself to the bark of the tree
while the other feeds, two front toes facing forward,
two backward in perfect balance.
Time is all his now.

When he leaves, the other comes and feeds
and later the larger, red-headed woodpecker arrives.
With his strong pointed beak, he feeds at the suet,
stiffened tail feathers straight behind him,
a vision in beauty.

After the squirrels, after the woodpeckers,
the garden is silent and calm,
satiety over,
accomplished by patience,
by a soft determination for survival,
a lesson in nature’s etiquette.

© Barbara Flass 2012

Christmas Memory: Las Cruces, New Mexico

December 21, 1993
Las Cruces, New Mexico

Driving over the Sierra Caballo Mountains, the night surrounds us, hiding the daytime colors of the southwest.  We are tired, knowing we have days of travel ahead and hoping that by a miracle we will reach home back east on Christmas Eve.

Suddenly we are over the top, on a downward run to the Rio Grande valley, and there below us we see the hand of God.  Like scattered diamonds in the valley, thousands and thousands of tiny twinkling white lights of Las Cruces. Not the bright lights of a city back east, beaming strong, unwavering light into the darkness.  This is a magical twinkling, the desert’s own Christmas tree.

We are surrounded by a peaceful quiet as we descend into the diamonds, mesmerized into silence.   Maybe we will not be home for Christmas Eve, but here in the mountains of the desert southwest, we have just witnessed a magical Christmas Eve–unforgettable, indescribable, transcendent– the miracle of God touching His hand upon the earth.

Photo by R. Craig Walker
Socorro, New Mexico

Black Friday at the Beach

I had a lot to be grateful for over Thanksgiving weekend.  I didn’t get pepper-sprayed, shot in a parking lot, or mugged at knife point after making my purchases at the mall.  Actually, I never went to the malls.  My husband, mother, dog, cat, and I all went to New Jersey to visit my oldest daughter.  She cooked a turkey dinner, we sat around and laughed and talked, and we watched Macy’s Thanksgiving parade and several football games.  Isn’t that what Thanksgiving should be?  I can’t understand why anyone would forfeit family time at Thanksgiving to save some money on a flat-screen television or a sweater.   Maybe our values are not really so different from our elected officials who don’t seem to be able to put human needs above personal interests.

On  Friday we all went to Smithville, a restored historical village five minutes from my daughter’s house.  There we went to our favorite stores.  One is an angel store with all things angelic.  Another was the Irish store.  We always go to the candy and fudge shop.  At night there were hundreds of  trees floating in the lake all lit in various Christmas colors choreographed to Christmas music.  It was wonderful!

The best part of Friday was the time we spent at the beach in Brigantine.  The temperature was in the 60s, we could park right next to the entrance to the beach, and we could easily walk the beach without tripping over people.  There were some other people at the beach, however.  Some were sitting in beach chairs, some were fishing, some were jogging or walking or sitting on the sea wall enjoying the warmth of the sun and the pounding of the surf.  I was certainly grateful to be able to go to the beach at the end of November!

One other moment made me grateful for what I have.  There is a wonderful older couple who lives in the condo upstairs from my daughter’s condo.  The woman had cancer a few years ago and is now dealing with a recurrence.  I saw her several times over the weekend out in front of the condos feeding the squirrels and birds.  She also puts food out for some stray cats in the area.   I am impressed by her determination to continue to live her life the best way she can.  I am also grateful that I have not had a recurrence of my cancer, and I can go visit my children and grandchildren and appreciate my family time together.

I don’t worry that I might have missed a great deal on Black Friday.  I had an unbeatable deal in the time I spent with family.  And the best bargain of the day was found at the beach.  What price can you put on the sound of the sea, the warmth of the sun, and the peacefulness of the shore?

Pampas Grass in Autumn

The pampas grass stands tall and proud in the late fall fields and gardens,
strong still before the bitter winds of winter come.
Deceptive beauty its game,
the feathery silver plumes wave softly in the breeze.
Its razor-sharp leaves send a message defending against a truth
that it will be dormant soon after the frost comes.

Thriving both here in a northern garden
and in the pampas of South America,
it’s oblivious to damp soil or rocky areas,
adapting easily to all surroundings,
its height only part of its power.
Clinging in tussocks, it gains strength in unity.

It’s a mixture of good and bad, they say,
like so many of us.
Praised for its ornamental beauty,
(the female plant showier than the male),
but maligned as a prolific, invasive spreader,
it has learned to survive despite adversity.

Subtle weapons ready,
the filmy plumes of the pampas grass
offer to mankind a silent lesson in resilience.

Photo Elwood W. McKay III

Spider Web Artistry

One recent morning while enjoying a cup of coffee in the living room, I suddenly saw what looked like a string hanging from the ceiling.  Then I noticed the small black spider dangling from the bottom.  If you have never watched a spider spinning a web, you should.

If my elderly mother had been present, she would have jumped up in panic and run for her shoes to whack it one.  She has an incredible fear of all things spider-like.  Recently, she saw one in her bathroom, a spider she claims was enormous in size and apparently deadly.  She raced out of the bathroom to get a shoe to attack it, ran back in and chased it around before slipping on the bathroom rug, falling, and hitting her head on the edge of the sink.  She was ecstatic at her kill and nonchalant about the huge bruise on her forehead.  I made her go to the doctor who tried to impress upon her the danger of a fall at her age.  He filled her in on the horrific consequences of a broken hip, the required stay in a nursing home and inevitable death from pneumonia.  Did any of that impress her?  Not a bit.  She just smiled and repeated her story that this was a huge spider that had the potential to kill her more quickly than a fall involving a head injury.

That morning as I pointed out to my husband that a small spider was in the process of spinning his web downward toward the coffee table, he quietly got up, went into the kitchen to get a paper towel, walked back to the living room and wrapped up the little critter before he reached the table.  My husband then carefully and slowly walked over to the sliding glass door, opened it up, and gently laid the spider down on the deck.  I have no idea what might have been going through the mind of the spider at the time.  I don’t even know if spiders have a mind, at least maybe not the kind of mind that would question a sudden interruption in the spinning process, or wonder why his nice, warm environment suddenly became the cold autumn air and the solid wood of the deck beneath his legs.   I’d like to think he just shrugged his shoulders (I don’t really know if spiders have shoulders either) and went about his day.

This spider was certainly luckier than that huge, ugly, black toxic spider in my mother’s bathroom that morning, although he did manage to achieve a certain insidious revenge by causing my mother’s fall.  I am really convinced that all life is worth sparing, and the artful spider who spins a delicate web so gracefully in our presence can add a sense of wonder to our days if we only allow it.

Snow Fell Too Early in Upstate New York

Before the first frost iced the few remaining garden flowers, before the maple leaves could finish changing from green to red and orange, before Halloween was over with its smashed pumpkins and toilet paper tree décor, snow fell in upstate New York.  It was far too early and not exactly as predicted, since our local meteorologists forecast snow mainly in the higher elevations.  So now I feel a little more unsure about the next predicted storm tomorrow afternoon into Sunday, one of those coastal storms that occur usually after Thanksgiving and sometimes not even before Christmas.

The thing is, I really like the first snowfall of the year.  I like the way the snow weighs down the pine branches, forming a canopy over the roads.  I like when the sun shines on the powdery surfaces of the ground and sparkles the edges of the pines.

But I’m not ready.  I’m not ready to let go of autumn just as I was beginning to enjoy the falling leaves, the pumpkin patches, and the apple crop.  The stores seem to be ready, however, having displayed Christmas trees and ornaments during the last few weeks.  I don’t know why we rush the seasons.  I don’t know why we don’t get to immerse ourselves completely in each one before the next arrives.  I don’t like being unprepared.

Still, I’m not going to put my wreath on the front door or buy my Christmas cards yet.  I’m not going to be drawn in to the beautiful ornaments adorning the trees in Michaels or A.C. Moore or Macy’s or the malls.  I have yet to think about a turkey for Thanksgiving and I have no idea where my snow brush is or my scraper.  I would rather sit looking out my sliding glass doors at the squirrels racing around the garden and the woodpeckers searching for bugs in the dead pine trees.  I like watching the snow melt into the still-soft ground, uncovering the leaves waiting expectantly to be raked up into piles.  I long for autumn to linger a while.  I want it to rage against the onslaught of winter snow and icy mornings.  I want to hear the crunch of leaves under my feet and smell the first smoky fires from neighborhood chimneys.  I want to hold tightly on to the remaining October days before I am thrown headlong into the frenzy of the holidays.  I am not ready yet for winter in New York.