Even in the darkest days there is light
Hidden from all except those sparkling eyes
That seek deepest. In the jet, sleepless night
Starlight glimmers in icicles. The skies
Even at the Pole blaze with auroras.
A cold, gray day's rain may freeze on hunched twigs
So that even a heartless cynic must pause
When the sulking sun shines. Even bigwigs
Must shed their conceit and be charmed
As a single sun becomes so many
That dazzling blinds. The light shimmers unharmed
By dark days and winter, and should any
Say such light's a dream, and cannot be,
I say their eyes wear scales, and cannot see.
What a music is made by the freezing rain!
A strange high-pitched squealing as branches shift
In the drifting mist; the muted refrain
Of dripping mingled with the swift uplift
Of tinkling ice as a quick cascade
On high descends glittering to the street.
I forget I'm just a little afraid
Because far off in the forest the defeat
Of a burdened bough's told by crack and crash,
And because too much ice means we'll lose power,
For the clouds part, and in the sun's bright flash
The whole world's become some diamond flower.
Our Creator is love; creation's the ring,
And what is proposed should make a man sing.
One neat thing about the internet is the ability I gain to hear what people in other places are grousing about. For example, some are complaining their winter hasn’t had snowstorms and there will not be a White Christmas in their locale. This strikes me as ludicrous, for two reasons. First, winter will not even start for another two days. Second, here we are reeling from winter’s blows and many around here are already fed up with winter, before it has officially started.
The cold air masses that plunge down from Canada apparently “lift out” and are pulled back north before affecting many to our south, but we seem to always get clipped. Where to our south they get all rain we get some snow mixed in.
One storm I posted about two weeks ago gave us three feet of snow, though areas not far to our north and south got less than six inches. If it wasn’t trouble enough dealing with such depths of white, the following two storms passed to our west and gave us flooding rains, made all the worse by the fact culverts were clogged with snowbanks. A wash-out littered the end of my driveway with cobbles the size of my fist.
After dealing with deep drifts I had to make sure roofs didn’t collapse under sodden snow, and dealt with a flooded cellar. Then it seemed that the departing rain-storms always pulled down just enough cold air to create just enough backlash snow to force me to deal with clearing it; (at times three inches can be as annoying as three feet).
At the risk of sounding like Rodney Dangerfield, I was starting to feel I’d never get a break. Forget about finding time for Christmas shopping. I was finding it hard to find time to even keep the home-fires burning, or to start the campfires out in the pasture at our Childcare that makes sledding in the cold far more enjoyable for the children. It is hard to even start a fire when the firewood is under three feet of snow. Then children don’t want to sled when it is pouring rain. Then the arctic blasts that followed the rain turned the slopes into sheer ice, and supersonic sledding is downright dangerous when it involves three-year-old and four-year-old kids. (Not that the kids aren’t willing.)
To be honest, I’m getting a bit old to be involving myself in such nonsense. I should be staying home and complaining about the aches and pains brought on by low barometric pressure, not be out in the storms making aspirin salesmen happy by attempting to shovel and split wood like a young man, and to go sledding down bumpy slopes like a child. When the kids demand an igloo I moan. Then, when the igloo is half-built, and the rain ruins it, I start sounding like Rodney Dangerfield.
Despite all the pain, I can find myself singing. I can’t claim credit for lifting spirits, for I do some things by rote, in a purely mechanical fashion, about as cheerful as a robot. I depend on children aged three and four to display the spiritual wherewithal. They are the ones who muster the cheer. They never fail me.
For example, when we ran out of campfire wood I lugged my chainsaw out to the pasture. I know most childcare-professionals turn green at the very idea of small children being within a mile of a chainsaw, but I happen to know, from experience, that children delight in being invited along to the felling of a dead cherry tree or pine.
I take all sorts of precautions, keeping children out of harm’s way even should the tree falls the exact opposite direction I aim it to fall, and the children seem to comprehend the gravity of the situation. I don’t even need to gently rebuke the especially young and naive, because a five-year-old does it for me, like a small sergeant.
A hush descends when I shut off the saw and state the tree is about to fall. Then, when I lean against the trunk, and with a rending crack the tree starts to topple, and I shout, “Timber!”, the children jump up and down more than they do for fireworks, and when the trunk thuds to earth you’d think I’d just invented sliced bread. I keep my eyes on them as much as the log as I cut up the trunk, for they tend to edge closer, eager to load the logs on sleds. Then I likely violate child-labor-laws as badly as Tom Sawyer did when getting his Aunt Polly’s fence whitewashed, for children seem to fail to recognize moving hundreds of pounds of wood to a campfire on sleds is work. For them it seems a romp. But I do nothing to make the work be fun. The children do that work as well.
Another thing I do by rote is to show children what the Christmas carol that begins, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” is talking about. Some modern children have no idea what a chestnut, (or even an open fire) is. So I telephone grocery stores until I locate chestnuts, go get several pounds, build a fire and breed a bed of coals, and finally roast some chestnuts. Originally I used a flat rock or bricks, but we’ve gravitated to using the end of a broken shovel.
I never have to lift a finger to make the kids be interested. If anything I use reverse psychology, saying things like “This is grown-up food and you probably won’t like it” and “Chestnuts are too hot for little kids to peel the shells off of”. Even the most doubtful and suspicious will be busily shelling hot nuts, crouching like a squirrel (sans the tail) within an hour. The children supply the eagerness and excitement, as I plod about doing it all by rote.
However even the most idyllic setting can be wrecked by bad weather. Yesterday evening I had a splendid fire going out in the pasture, but noted that the sunset, usually ten minutes after four this far north, abruptly darkened. The wind swirled, and sparks flew from the fire, and then we were hit by an arctic snow squall. Such squalls immediately plaster small faces with wet flakes, and in a gusty wind even the warmest snowsuit can’t counter a freezing face.
I didn’t even wait for the wailing to begin. We immediately abandoned the fire and headed through the swirling, heavy snow for the “warming room” back at the stables, which was a bit like herding cats. The wailing was in full chorus by the time we arrived. Temperatures were crashing as yet again we got “clipped” by the coldest air so far this season, and again temperatures dove towards zero ( -17 Celsius.) By the stable’s infrared lamps the wailing soon ceased.
This morning’s bright sunshine did little to warm things, as the north wind roared in the pines.
Today I thought I might get my Christmas shopping started, but a member of my staff suffered a misfortune and I had to cover for them. Rather than being spiritual and feeling pity for them, I was Rodney Dangerfield and felt sorry for myself. (It is hard dealing with a bunch of small children bouncing off the walls when you can’t do the logical thing, which is to throw them outside.) (I’d rather “delegate”, and watch my staff deal with such chaos.)
Actually, children want to go out despite the cold, especially when the low, December sun is white in a vivid blue sky, and looks inviting through a window. Rather than quarreling I tend to dress them up in their snow suits and allow them out to learn for themselves that their fingers and toes are swiftly bitten by an invisible creature. I keep an eye on their cheeks, watching for the healthy pinkness to tinge to purple, which is a sign the white patches of frostbite may soon follow. I also teach lessons that northern people should know, such as staying out of the wind, or staying close to the sunny side of a barn, which happens to be right by the warming room at the stables. I want to be by that room for I know that, despite all the clamoring to go outside, and all the work of putting on snowsuits and boots and hats and mittens, in as few as five minutes the exact same children will be clamoring to go back in. I prefer that they go into a room where I don’t have to take their snowsuits off. Some settle in the warming room and play with toys or color with cold crayons, but other go in and out, in and out, all morning long. By lunch I’m exhausted, and glad to hand the children off to an arriving member of the staff who will usher them indoors to lunch and settle them for “quiet time”.
But what about poor old Rodney Dangerfield? What about me? Who will usher me or settle me? No one, because I’m a grown man. I’m macho. But machismo didn’t make me all that happy today. I felt the pain but didn’t feel like singing.
It was too late for shopping, (as I also had an afternoon shift), but I had other tasks to catch up on. The woodpile on the porch was getting low, and I needed to cut some short logs from the long lengths of wood up on the back hill behind the house. It shouldn’t be so hard, now that recent rains had reduced the three feet of snow to six inches. I hoisted my chainsaw and headed off stoutly in that direction, and heard the pines roar, and then was hit by a blast of wind that made me wince and cringe away. Instantaneously I decided the saw was too dull. Rather than cut wood I should sharpen the saw. When I touched the blade the fabric of my gloves froze to the steel. I decided I should do the sharpening inside by the hot wood stove.
I think it was at this point my mood changed. Perhaps I don’t always need three-year-olds and four-year-olds to supply the spiritual wherewithal. Perhaps I can rouse something called “a sense of humor”, and muster enough poetry for a sonnet about sharpening a saw.
I know my wife don’t like machines within Her tidy, warm house, but Wife wasn’t home. The cold would freeze chainsaw’s steel to skin And so I brought the chainsaw in, but own Brains bright enough not to place Saw on polish Of Wife’s Table. Instead I bent Old Back And creaked down to the floor, a smallish Rat-tailed-file in hand, and by Stove began Attack On Dullness, tooth by tooth. Hearing grinding My old dog came over to see what bone I gnawed, down on her level. Then, finding None, she licked my face. So, now I own That simplicity’s not all that boring, Stuck inside with arctic winds roaring.
I am an idealist and have fairly high standards, but life has had a way of humbling me. Often I fail to live up to my own standards. For example, I feel I should drive a fancy sports car, but in fact drive an old clunker. I feel I should be rich and famous, but in fact am poor and unknown. Not that I am less optimistic. I keep right on plugging ahead, rolling with the punches, and refusing to allow a few piffling set-backs to get me down.
In some senses I suppose this makes me a hypocrite, for I state standards should be high while looking a bit low. Also I seem to have a disconnect from reality, only managing to accomplish 5% of what high standards require, which seems a sure recipe for failure. However I sail through debacles and fiascos I seemingly shouldn’t survive, and through the grace of God emerge unscathed, at times reminding myself of Mr. Magoo.
One characteristic of Mr. Magoo is that he is so near-sighted that he is constantly misinterpreting what he is seeing, and driving the wrong way down one-way roads in any number of ways, but he also possesses blind luck, and miraculously never is killed in headlong collisions, and in fact is often blissfully unaware of the dangers he’s just escaped by the skin of his teeth, (though he is able to take offense at what his poor eyesight sees as a rude gesture from an onlooker, when it is actually an inanimate coat-rack.)
To misinterpret what you are seeing is like a baseball player expecting a fastball when a curve is coming, or a banker expecting a boom just before a bust, or a weatherman predicting sunshine just before an storm. We all experience such failures, and recovering from them is part of life. However I have noticed some fascinating things happen during that period of recovery, which causes me to think the grace of God is involved.
One thing we seldom see coming is particularly bad weather. This makes mincemeat of our high standards, for a thing like three feet of snow makes things we don’t schedule or even think about, such as walking from the front door to our car, suddenly an unexpected task, a thing we didn’t include in Plan A or Plan B, and because we had no contingency plan in effect we are an hour behind, just shoveling our way to our car.
Another thing we seldom see coming is the absence of a crucial employee we count upon. Because we must fill-in, there is other work undone, and we soon are another hour behind.
These hours add up, until one must give up on high standards, because certain deeds cannot be completed, and are either postponed or cancelled outright. Standards start slipping. For example, after a big storm one thing I notice at the local market is that most women are having bad-hair-days.
As soon as standards slip, danger increases. One wants to cover every contingency, but simply lacks the stamina. And it is at this point people start to pray, (albeit under their breath, if they are Atheists). Also at this point many who think they have faith because they attend church regularly discover their faith is weak, and mutter doubts such as, “If God existed he wouldn’t allow it to snow three feet.” In conclusion, three feet of snow tests the faith of Atheists in their Atheism, and Believers in their Belief, for there is nothing like the whiff of danger to peel away the thin skin of our intellectualizing, and expose our hearts.
On a farm, the increasing danger caused by slipping standards is painfully obvious. Crops can wither or rot or be smothered by weeds or consumed by vermin, and animals can be injured or die. Because farmers are not perfect, they are subject to punishment and guilt for every imperfection. They feel waves of anger and pangs of grief over the death of a chicken, (even without the help of animal-rights-activists, who seem primarily concerned about guilt).
My chickens, on the other hand, care little about me. They just want food. They rush me even when I’m on time, and if I’m late their onrush makes it difficult to walk. In fact, rushing me is such a habit that, even if I have just fed and watered them, they rush me on general principles, when I drop by to try to make their coop warmer. Not a single chicken makes my work easier by handing me a hammer, and in fact they tend to make work more difficult by pooping on the hammer’s handle.
The winter-quarters I have built them utterly fails to meet my high standards. I had a Mercedes planned but have flung together a Model-T. I could give a long list of excuses, but in essence I failed to plan for December to pounce upon us early, in late October. Hit by arctic blasts, huddled in their summer quarters, the chickens formed a ball of feathers at night that looked like a single extra-large chicken, made of eight. Therefore I built and moved them to their winter quarters in a frantic rush, planning to make improvements when I had “extra time”, which, due to things like three feet of snow, I never had.
I built them nesting boxes, but the ungrateful birds refused to use them. I could tell by the size of their combs they ought to be starting to lay, but the only egg I saw was a lone one, on the floor in front of the boxes. ( I had no “extra time” to conduct an Easter-egg-hunt.) I lengthened their time of daylight with conventional lighting, and warmed the nesting area by slapping up a heat-lamp, but they seemed completely unwilling to thank me by paying rent with a few eggs.
Instead the ungrateful chickens seemed to feel the heat-lamp wasn’t enough. They needed a bigger fire. One flew up and attempted to sit on the heat lamp (which I confess wasn’t fixed in place according to fire-department codes), and knocked the lamp to the floor. For some reason the bulb didn’t break, and instead shone onto the pine-shavings, making them hotter, and hotter, until they began to smolder. Rather than bursting into flame they formed an expanding area of red coals that ate away at the floor boards and floor joists. Rather than the smoke rising it weirdly was sucked down into the crawl-space and exited to the rear of the stables where no one could see it. Rather than flying out through the goat stalls the culprit chickens remained, perhaps planning to rise from ashes under the delusion they were phoenixes. The expanding pool of red hot coals expanded under the wall of the coop into the straw bedding of the goats, which was powder dry.
And what was I doing? Doing even as the coals expanded outwards, on the verge of bursting into flames and likely consuming the stables in a flash, and probably the adjacent barn as well (because our local fire-department is cruelly called “The Cellar-hole Savers”)?
What was I doing? I was settling down to take what I felt was a well-deserved siesta, patting a swollen paunch loaded with a big bowl of chili with beans.
I hate to admit it, but I was feeling smug. Not that I wasn’t giving glory to God, but one cannot help but feel a bit smug after Mr. Mcgooing through a situation, only doing around 5% of what should be done to uphold high standards, yet coming through it alive. After all, at age 66 I shovel and snow-blow snow in a manner which, compared to how I worked at age 30, is definitely sub-standard. Yet I’d dealt with three feet of snow, and also the fact the snow-blower broke at the height of the storm. I also dug up and split firewood to keep the home-fires burning. And, when the storm was followed by a thaw and deluge, I dealt with a flooding cellar and malfunctioning sump-pump. To top it off, I substituted for missing staff at our Childcare, and hoisted and coddled and romped-with three-year-olds despite the fact my aching body protested. Not that I did 5% as well as the missing staff might have done, and not that a better man would have done a better job of maintaining his snow-blower and sump-pump, but, through the grace of God, I’d made it through the snow and flood. I deserved a brief nap, but just then my cellphone rang.
I learned a storm door was refusing to latch at the Childcare, and was bothering napping children, by slamming in the wind. My immediate response was not texted back. It was, “What about napping old men? Should they be bothered, too?”
Glancing out the window I could see the wind was swiftly dying down. I concluded the problem could wait. I can gain astonishing refreshment from a fifteen-minute “dip”. But some odd intuition hit me. I had a “feeling” I would “dip” better if I dealt with the door first. So, stretching and yawning, I lazily drove over to the Childcare, inspected the latch of the swinging door, jury-rigged some wires to halt the swinging until I found time to fix the latch, and slouched back to my car to head home for my “dip”. But just then another odd intuition hit me, and I wondered if my chickens had laid any eggs.
Just to make such an odd impulse look slightly sane, I should mention I’ve had egg-eater chickens in the past. It had occurred to me one reason I’d found only one egg might be because I had another egg-eater on my hands. One way to become aware of an egg-eater is to check nests more regularly, before egg-eaters have had a chance to eat. So I lazily wandered over to the coop.
The moment I opened the door of the coop my consciousness was hit by a series of jarrings which, because my belly was full of chili and beans and I was feeling soporific and yawning, I cruised through without fully waking up. It took about thirty seconds, but will take far longer to tell.
The first ten seconds involved me hearing the clonk of goat hoofs at the top of the partition that separates the chickens from the goats, and being faced by Lydia, my alpha-female goat, giving me a most-definite “look,”
Now I will have to explain what a “look” is. It is how the alpha-female silently communicates to the alpha-male that he may think he is boss, but her opinions matter. You often see it while herding goats because goats are not “grazers” like cows and sheep that are happy eating grass all day long, but “browzers” like deer that require variety. Often the alpha-male might be perfectly happy munching acorns under oaks, but the alpha-female has decided it is time to move on to munching goldenrod. Rather than just heading to the goldenrod, she starts to give the alpha-male a “look”. She stares at him intently, without wavering, until he notices. He practically jumps when he sees the “look”. Almost immediately, pretending to be casual and that it was his own idea, he leads the flock away from the acorns.
We have not had a male goat around since we gave up on our dairy, (my wife doesn’t like their powerful musk), and therefore Lydia has seemingly decided I am some sort of surrogate alpha-male. I am forever getting the “look” from her. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I inform her I am not a goat and will not be moved, I keep getting the “look”. And, to be honest, it is a bit uncanny how much can be communicated by eyes, without words. Where I have to use a whole slew of words to describe a mere ten seconds, a goat can communicate volumes with a single glance.
The glance I got from Lydia was unlike any I ever saw before. The closest I’ve ever seen was a look my mother gave a brother when he brought home a girl she didn’t approve of: A distillation of worry. If goats had foreheads, Lydia’s would have creased with concern. My soporific consciousness could only manage a nonintellectual, “What the…”
The next ten seconds involved stepping forward, and noticing the red glow of a heat-lamp was not up where it should be, but down low behind the door of the chicken coop. Two more steps and I opened the door, and witnessed what the above picture shows, but with a lot more red and orange. The above picture is a reenactment produced after the fire was out. At the moment I was not thinking of taking pictures. What appears to be a dark hole in the above reenactment was a circle of red coals crossed by a red line which were coals that had once been the floor joist.
Due to the bizarre drafts, the coals reminded me a smoker’s pipe. (Not that I have seen a man smoking tobacco in a pipe in thirty years.) The coals blazed red, and then as the draft slackened smoke would puff up, and then the coals would blaze again as the draft resumed.
I have not heated with wood for decades without developing the ability to discern when a smoldering fire is about to burst into flame. This fire was right at that point, and the closest faucet was over at the Childcare. However my laziness saved me. Because I don’t like going all the way to the Childcare to get water for the chickens, I’d stuck a bucket under the eves to catch rainwater during the deluge.
The third ten seconds involved me leaping to that bucket, bringing it to the fire, and cupping my hands and throwing a couple of handfuls on the coals.
I have not heated with wood for decades without knowing it makes a world of difference to a smoldering fire if you lower your lips to pucker and blow on it, nursing it to life, or throw a single handful of water on it. Talk about a so-called “tipping point”! Five minutes later and the coop and stables might have been blazing to a degree where the entire bucketful of water would have been a laughable attempt to put the fire out, but because I was in time I deeply discouraged the fire with the first flung handful.
I made sure the last coal was out, spending a long time sprinkling handfuls of water and then feeling with my fingers to locate heat I could not see. (Long ago I heard a tale of a man who awoke at night with his house on fire, fought the fire until he thought it was out, and then went back to bed unaware an ember still glowed. The next time he awoke he was in the next world.) It was interesting how the coals ate like worms down tunnels through the old wood and tinder-dry bedding, especially under the partition and into the bedding on the goat’s side. But at long last, after many handfuls, I could find no warmth and see neither steam nor smoke.
But during the process of poking about I did discover more than I ever expected:
At this point my sense of absurdity kicked in. I was feeling a bit ashamed over my stupidity, kicking myself for putting a heat-lamp where a pyro-chicken could knock it to the floor, and figured I deserved to have my stables and barn burned down. Instead I was rewarded with a dozen farm-fresh eggs. Oh Magoo! You’ve done it again!
However, beyond the irrefutable proof of my own absurdity, I felt I had glimpsed God’s grace. After all, it is quite unlike me to postpone a nap, especially when I have worked hard for an old geezer, and think I deserve a nap. What in the world got into me? Why on earth did I listen to some voice in my own head, and delay my nap to go attend to a door slamming in the wind? And what was that voice?
If you use a search engine such as DuckDuckGo and type in “still, small voice”, you may find yourself back in the Old Testament, when Elijah was disagreeing with Jezebel, and found himself in deep do-doo. When hopelessly outnumbered in a debate with her rump-swabs, he infuriated Jezebel by basically trouncing her rump-swabs with Truth, and consequently had to run for his life because Jezebel wanted him dead. Elijah himself wanted to die, but on his own terms and not on Jezebel’s terms, and, while Elijah was deep in this suicidal despondence, exiled in the wilderness, apparently Truth had a talk with him. What is interesting to me is that Truth did not speak in a deep, booming baritone. Instead the encounter is described as follows:
” A great and mighty wind was tearing at the mountains and was shattering cliffs before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was a voice, a soft whisper.”
This makes me wonder about the “soft whisper” that strangely motivated me to act so out of character, and, rather than procrastinating with a nap, made me procrastinate the nap itself.
You cannot deny, as I describe things, that the whisper made a huge difference. Yet it has no obvious substance. It is about as intellectual as the glance I get from a goat.
Why should God concern himself with big things When the small pebbles that cause avalanches Will do? Big Icarus sought big wings And big lights and got clipped, like the branches In vineyards thrown into the fire. The snips Of God’s shears are heard in quiet places: On shaded side streets; humble homes; small ships Netting small fish. And the bright faces Touched by His light are turned away from fame, Which is His shadow. What changes our lives Is often silent. Those who seek acclaim Seek to be stunted. The vineyard that thrives Hears the quiet tread and sees quiet deeds Of One who knows best what the tavern most needs.
In case you young folk want to know where firewood comes from, it comes from “wood mines”.
My rat-hunting dog begs to differ. She claims they are called “woof mines”.
The deep snows make everyday deeds, like getting an armload of wood, difficult. The deep snow-cover also seems to confuse the computer-model used to figure out our forecasts. Temperatures are significantly lower than forecast. The low last night was forecast to be 10F (-12 Celsius) but instead it is getting down towards zero in the dark before dawn. But check out the forecast. Nearly fifty degrees warmer and raining by tomorrow!?
What a mess it could be! Everything will turn to slush and then freeze solid. Great start to winter. But if the snowbanks by the roads freeze solid it will be more difficult to skid off the roads. They become like bobsled runs.