Mid-morning: Open one eye and look at wristwatch glowing under the covers. Push head out to notice grey day, no sun. Back under.
Phone rings. Reluctant rise. Take pills, shower, dress. Nibby's kibble - 1/4 cup - in bowl and run water until it gets hot enough while looking out the window over the mud flats: extremely low tide reveals old oyster posts dotted around the channel and clusters of people clamming on the public beach. Grey water, grey sky, grey tide flats.
While gazing out over grey space, I remember that a friend has died.
(This corporeal shock must be revisited hourly it seems, a break in the bubble of immortality we construct around us. It's strange that the thought can't sink in once and for all; that we have to keep reminding ourselves - "Oh yes, she's gone.")
Mimo is waiting for breakfast. Wash flat-leafed parsley and place in plastic bin. Put 1/4 cup of Timothy Hay pellets in ceramic bowl. Remember hummers are almost out of food. On stove two cups sugar to eight cups water; bring slowly to boil. Cool.
Also heat water in tea pot for Starbucks' instant; rip little container open and pour dark granules into favorite mug. Add water. Ah!
Turn on happy light and read next chapter in Bill Carter's "Red Summer." Proceed as-if.
In the bleak midwinter,
frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
In 1872, Christina Rossetti wrote "In the Bleak Midwinter" when Scribner's Monthly requested a Christmas carol. It appeared in the "English Hymnal" in 1906, set to a tune written by Gustav Theodore Holst that the composer called "Cranham" after a small town in Gloucester where he grew up visiting his grandparents. It was voted the most popular carol in 2008.
I love the repetition in the third line. It's a cold time, snow has fallen and we feel how deeply dreary it is, when "snow on snow" is not enough but must be followed by "snow on snow." The plaintive melody perfectly suits these melancholy words.
It is difficult to lose a friend, especially in the middle of winter when one is already vulnerable to doubts about life, about the purpose of it all and how one is performing against the gift of skills and talents delivered by ancestors.
There is no standard measure for a life, but, at one time or another, I suspect we all ask, "Am I doing enough?" "What's it all about?"
Out any window, there are bare branches gathering their strength and on them wrens, sparrows, chickadees, and magical hummingbirds perching, waiting, watching, singing, scouting for food, or thinking about building nests.
Should one start again?
Q and A
These questions have no easy answers. Father Ron Rolheiser, in his Feb. 5, 2007, column, poses another deep query, "Why is there something instead of nothing?" He reminds us to stop whining, that life on earth - just as it is - is simply a miracle.
Father Ron relays Steven Hawkings' remarks, "If the rate of expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by one part in a hundred thousand million it would have all recollapsed' and we would have no universe. On the other hand, if it had been greater by one part in a million, the universe would have expanded too rapidly for planets to form."
"If the nuclear force caused by this great explosion had even been slightly weaker we would have only hydrogen in the universe. If it had been even slightly stronger, all the hydrogen would be converted into helium." In either case, there would be no earth.
He goes on, "Finally, in the first seconds that followed this great explosion, for every one billion antiprotons in the universe, there were one billion and one protons. The billion pairs annihilated each other to produce radiation, but one proton was left over. A greater or smaller number of survivors (or no surviving protons at all if they had been evenly matched) and, again, we would not have a universe."
"To accentuate this anomaly, normally there is a perfect symmetrical balance between particles (a billion protons for a billion antiprotons). Why the billion and one?"
Winter provides a pause - a time of rest, reflection and rejuvenation - in the midst of this miracle of life; a time to slow down and prepare for the new beginnings ahead; a time to remember that life cannot exist without death.
In the U.S., some of us are learning to talk about death. Some friends have already passed and our parents are aging: this special last chapter (as far as we know) is a time for reverence, grateful conversation and quiet acceptance.
On the Big Island of Hawaii, two close friends of mine, Julie Wiskind and Richard Speigel, nursed another through her death and cared for her body after she died. They bathed her, anointed her and wrapped her in a length of white cloth. Then they took her body with them to the crematorium and stood by as the fire started.
They were bold enough to figure out how to create the ceremony they wanted and wrote about it in "Coming to Rest: A Guide to Caring for Our Own Dead, an Alternative to the Commercial Funeral." [Editor's note: Regulations vary by state jurisdiction.]
Talking about death is breaking the veil of our illusions. How do we understand something we know so little about that will have such powerful finality over us? Octavio Paz offers "Departure."
"Although this land is not my own,
I will remember its inland sea
and the waters that are so cold
the sand as white
as old bones, the pine trees
strangely red where the sun comes down.
I cannot say if it is our love,
or the day, that is ending."
Indeed "this land" is not ours. We borrow it and all the earthly elements that make up our bodies.
Finding the Satisfying Now
Have you ever noticed, if you watch commercial television, how strangely these new reality shows are pitched? They flaunt insipid behavior, questionable values, and prurient voyeurism. In "Bridalplasty" (what?!) young women fight each other to be the last one standing to have her ideal body-makeover (cut, tuck and stitch) before her wedding.
These seed an insidious phenomenon of creating the always unsatisfying now, some perversion that keeps us continually striving for something we don't have - yet. How horrible (how human) never to be contented with the moment at hand.
Mid-afternoon: chop wood and bring it in before it gets too dark. Start a fire. Empty the dishwasher. Light a couple candles. Check Facebook. Send some e-mails. Feed the neighbor's cat.
Early evening: Stoke the fire. Stroke the bunny. Return DVDs to Red Box, dodging a beautiful pink-tailed possum scurrying across the road. Dinner. Then watch the flames and re-read one of my favorite David Wagoner poems, "Lost."
Bedtime: Turn down the heat. Turn off the lights. Lock the doors. Brush teeth. Tuck everybody in. Dream.
Rossetti ends her carol with perhaps one answer to these perennial questions:
What can I give Him, Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man, I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him, Give my heart.
Mid-morning: Open one eye and look at wristwatch glowing under the covers. Peer out, notice grey day, no sun. Etc.
Quick run into town and I find my friend the possum dead on the road. I pick him up gently and lay him in the woods amidst the salal.
Life and death, in ethereal balance.