The cry

This post is in response to Ruth Ayres’ invitation to “write fast” on SOS – Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. I hadn’t planned to post today. But then…well, Ruth wrote: “My blog writing is the writing I do for me. It’s the writing I do for fun. It’s the writing that is most unexpected. My blog writing is the writing I allow to trail out of my heart and curl into magic.

And then, this sound…

This morning I heard it again. It stirred me from my luxurious Saturday-drowse. A loud cryyyy cryyy cryyy from the backyard, or very nearby. I threw off the blankets and ran out on the deck, promptly soaking my socks in the day-old rainwater.

I dreamt, once, that I was standing here exactly like this, looking up at the western sky, when an eagle flew by. Bald eagles do live around here. I have seen them on occasion and am convinced that an eagle’s (big, sloppy) nest is on the top of a water tower on the highway around the bend. In my dream, I was awed by the eagle and knew it portended something good.

But I know eagles don’t have the beautiful, poignant cryyy cryyy cryyy I am hearing on this early, pearl-sky morning. All other life seems to be slumbering but for this phantom bird, the lusty rooster across the street, and me. Day is just barely fading in.

It cries again, in the stillness. The air rings with its sharpness, with the curve and edge of it.

I know it’s a hawk. It has to be. I’ve seen several in recent weeks, since the turn of the year. I watched one gliding low overheard, never even flapping its wings, staying aloft as if by magic, following an icy spell in January when I went for a short walk in the thin winter sunlight that gilded the bare trees and glittered on the grass.

Returning to the warmth of the house, in my sodden socks, I make coffee and settle at my laptop to search.

Definitely not an eagle; that call is feeble in comparison to the one I heard.

Not a red-tailed hawk. A hair-raising, harrowing scream.

Then… yes!

A red-shouldered hawk. Fluid, syllabic, downward inflection. Somewhere over in the smattering of pines between my neighbor’s house and mine, where I dreamed an eagle flew.

I’d rather hear this cry even if I cannot see the hawk. The sound scrapes against my heart.

Something to do with the aching aliveness of things, even if the hawk is a predator. If I want to focus on symbolism, there’s a lot: intuition, spirituality, power…

But now, now, as the rooster picks back up with his daylong rusty-bugle solo (that’s one vigorous creature), there’s a familiar cheep cheep warble at the front door, so happy and so loud that it seems almost to be in my house.

The finches! They made their annual nest in my door wreath last spring but didn’t lay eggs as in previous years, when I held my granddaughter up to see the nestlings. For some reason, they disappeared. And left me bereft. One more little layer of heartache in a deeply heartrending year. When I took the wreath down in the fall, I mourned over the perfect, unused nest.

I saved it. I couldn’t toss such artistry away.

I put my spring wreath up early. Like, at the end of January.

When I went to look for the chattering finches just now, I couldn’t see them any more than I could see that hawk this morning; I believe the little birds were sitting in the wreath, voicing (to me) their delight.

There’s likely to be babies at my door by Easter.

And, I hope, somewhere high in the lonely pines.

Red-shouldered hawk. Don Miller. CC BY

Periwinkle

Last week of February.

Winter wears on.

Trees hold up their naked, skeletal branches, exposing clumps of old birds’ nests. The world is colorless, like a vintage film, a study of grayscale contrasts. Only the pines, bent by a recent glazing of ice, remain green. My backyard is littered with their brokenness. Tufts of needles and a couple of large boughs are strewn across the dead, mud-puddled grass.

It is a time of enduring.

Little things go a long way.

I’ve written of the stab of joy on seeing a bluebird, that brilliant dash of color against this dreary backdrop, as something to treasure each day. Now, despite the cold, an unseen bird nearby sings a bright song to usher in the dawn while it is still dark: cheer cheer cheer… a cardinal. Another favorite bird. I long for its vivid red. Just this week I also heard the first metallic honk, honk of Canada geese, returning to nest.

Spring is afoot, aflight, audible, if not yet visible.

And then there is the flower.

I thought it was my eyes playing tricks.

In the old weathered pots on the back deck, amid the ruins of my geraniums, the trailing Vinca still lives. Pale, leafy strands spill across the boards like errant strands of hair. And in one pot… a spot of… what is that color? Lavender?

A closer examination: Two little periwinkle blooms. Five-petaled. Most unexpected. The vines weren’t blooming when I planted them in early summer. I honestly didn’t know they would. This necessitates research: Vinca blooms in “late spring through summer.”

Mine is blooming while it is yet winter. Surely a there’s metaphor in it. As in the cardinal’s bright song in the dark, just before light. Like the bluebird’s welcome spot of color, popping against the blah. More research, because for me symbolism has an irresistible allure: The color periwinkle represents serenity, calmness, winter, and ice. The flower itself, sentimental memories, nostalgia, new beginnings. I read that it can also represent mental acuity. That’s certainly welcome. In the Middle Ages periwinkle was associated with the Virgin Mary; look for these little blooms beside her in old stained-glass windows. The vine’s very name, Vinca, comes from the Roman word for “binding.” Garlands were made of it, for dead children as well as for criminals on their way to execution—good heavens. This pierces me; I shudder. More shades of Mary’s own story, that…we are, after, all barely a week into Lent.

I shall think of this as winter’s funerary flower, then. A little blue-violet garland on the season’s icy brow, bidding adieu.

In place of a eulogy for winter…note Wordsworth’s inclusion of the periwinkle in “Lines Written in Early Spring” (read the whole poem to see what it is really about):

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower, 
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths; 
And ’tis my faith that every flower 
Enjoys the air it breathes. 

The birds around me hopped and played, 
Their thoughts I cannot measure:— 
But the least motion which they made 
It seemed a thrill of pleasure. 

All I know with certainty is that this little bloom, accompanied by increasingly-present birds, brings a thrill of promise.

*******

-with gratitude to the weekly Slice of Life storytellers at Two Writing Teachers, a bright spot in every week.
Here’s to the upcoming daily writing challenge in March!

Blue Valentine

Sunday dawns oyster gray, cold.

Rain rolls down the windows like tear-streaks of the wind, which howls in anguish under the eaves like a maimed creature.

In the backyard, pines stand in solidarity, like soldiers at a burial. Knee-deep in a sea of mud.

All dreary in its own right. I do not need to color it more so with my own thoughts, or to further stir my restive soul. Day after day after day of rain. No snow. At least no ice.

Am I unhappy?

No.

It’s Valentine’s Day. My husband and I have exchanged cards, chocolate, a sampler of hot sauces. “Burning Love,” the box reads. The flames on it are certainly a bright spot.

Am I tired?

Not as much as I was at the end of the workweek, the final one of remote teaching. We return to campus this week. Hard to envision the epic regulations to be enforced, the acrobatics of keeping elementary children distanced in imaginary bubbles.

Am I worried?

Concerned is a better word. It is a time to be like the pines, standing in solidarity despite the grayness, the bleakness, the muddiness, the wearing-on of things. I don’t know if I have it in me. This is not like me. My patience is peeled unusually thin; turpentine burns too near the surface. I do not like the feel of it.

Is my spirit failing me this Sunday morning? I should think not. It is a seasoned spirit. Today also happens to be the anniversary of my husband’s ordination, many, many years ago. We were so young, setting our feet on a path we could not clearly see, but we walked, and we walked, moment by moment, in sun, in shadows, over years, across decades…and here we are. I am grateful. He has already gone to church. I am getting ready, mulling this miserable scene beyond the blinds. I should have kept them closed.

I wish I could see the bluebird. He shows up almost every day, if I’m watching at the right time. He sits on the deck railing for long stretches. Little messenger of brightness.

Why should seeing him make me feel better-? Maybe hope is electric blue. Never thought of that before.

I sigh, and am turning away, when I catch a fluttering of wings…

The female. Not the bright blue I am longing for, but still. This means a nest may be in the works, nearby! Might I see baby bluebirds this spring? Dare I hope for such bounty? Do I deserve it?

She takes a bath, there on the railing. I think of Esther’s yearlong preparation for her union with the King.

And then my little lady bird is gone. I wait. The railing remains bare. He will not come. Maybe it’s the rain. I can’t keep watching. Must get to church or I will not be in good graces with the pastor, which is a problem I don’t need, since I live with him.

Happy Valentine’s Day, bluebirds, I say in my mind as I bundle up to leave.

And then, at the last, a flash of blue, landing on the railing…it’s him, it’s him! No, wait! Both! I have never seen them together before.

Rain never interferes with the mail and this is surely addressed to me as much as an envelope bearing my handwritten name.

A gift of love, my blue Valentine.

One day I will be poised just right to get a photo of MY birds, which look exactly like this. Eastern bluebirds are known to begin nesting in February. Let us hope…

Update: The Phrontistery definition: “valentine – of birds, to sing to a mate.”

If you are so inclined, here’s a little poem written on the occasion of the first sighting last week: First bluebird.

*******

Photos:
Vintage postcard. Kaarina Dillabough. CC BY-SA
Eastern Bluebird. 611catbirds, too. CC BY

Wherever I Gogh

He just keeps turning up everywhere I go.

It started with the painting on the otherwise unremarkable side of a building in an uptown shopping mall last summer. An unexpected portal:

Got me thinking a lot about imagination, passages, transitions, transcendence, overcoming…and faith. See how prominent the church is. And maybe a touch of magic—who has not encountered mysterious doors leading from one world to another in fantasy novels?

The Starry Night beckoned, took me in, adopted me. It became a personal motif during the COVID pandemic. Consider these definitions of motif:

a usually recurring salient thematic element (as in the arts); especially : a dominant idea or central theme.  —Merriam-Webster

a symbolic image or idea that appears frequently in a story. —literaryterms.com

My version: A “salient” (noticeable, as in you can’t miss it) symbol that keeps recurring, that has significant meaning to a narrative. Which is, in this case, my life. For I began taking note of how often van Gogh’s famous painting appeared in my daily existence, and what it could mean. Perhaps it is those deep blues, or those stars, or the peaceful village, or the presence of the church, or all of the above, that impart a sense of calm, benevolence, and well-being to me in the time of crisis. Maybe much as the artist felt when he painted it.

I have The Starry Night on a mask. A sort of literal and figurative protection. I used its imagery in a poem I wrote about awe, the word that adopted me when I turned the pages of my planner from 2020 to 2021 and found it in a quote there on January 1st. Awe and well-being are also deeply linked. When I wrote the poem I was thinking of all those blues in the painting and how blue is the rarest color in nature. Like forgiveness. Hence my closing lines: “The color of forgiveness/in the blue hour.” Those lines were born of awe just after The Starry Night resurfaced yet again in a startling way; one day I will be able to explain, but the time is not yet ripe for that story. Let us leave it at love, for love and forgiveness do not exist apart from one another.

And so we come to February.

Where this quote appears in the pages of my planner:

He just keeps turning up everywhere I go.

I marvel at those words and their truth for an artist, a student, a teacher, a writer.

Furthermore, we learn life by doing it.

One more thing…

I recently stumbled across van Gogh’s paintings of shoes. I wasn’t aware that this was a favorite subject for him. The story is that he would buy old shoes from flea markets and wear them through mud until they were interesting enough to paint.

I have to wonder about the symbolism. Shoes are necessary protection in daily life. A motif with many meanings in many cultures. A fashion obsession and status symbol in some. Deep spiritual connotations in others; shoes are often mentioned in the Bible, especially removing them as an act of reverence and faith. I wonder if van Gogh thought while he painted about the places these shoes had been, the people who wore them, what their life-journeys were like. What stories the shoes might tell, maybe just metaphorically, humbly, in their layers of dust and mud from long, hard travels on this Earth.

Lots to ponder with van Gogh and his shoes.

As I travel through life in my own.

He really does keep turning up, everywhere I go.

My shoes.

I’ve found these to be the most comfortable since breaking my foot, a year ago today.
Lots more to explore there, on brokenness and healing
.

How perfect is it that they are Vans. Wherever I may Gogh.

*******

written for the Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers.
Our stories often remind us of where we’ve been, where we are going, and who we are.
Writing them leads to surprising discoveries.
Sometimes those within ourselves.
Sometimes awe, at what lies beyond.

A bowl of snow

Deep in the night, it came.

I wake to the sound of it falling.

A faint, feathery swishing against the bedroom windowpanes. A silvery glow at the blinds, beckoning. I crawl out from under the warm covers to peer through.

It’s a different world. Softer. Purer. At peace in its perfect winter-white blanket, illuminated by the full moon. Big flakes descend to the ethereal stirring of wind chimes.

I imagine animals curled in their cozy dark burrows.

In the spirit of affinity, I return to mine.

I waited well into the morning before texting my son: Is she so excited?

His daughter, age five, has been longing for snow. Some winters pass without it here in central North Carolina.

He texted right back: She’s so wound up. We have already been out to play. We made snow cream. Put sprinkles on it and ate it for breakfast.

How awesome is that, I thought. She will remember it all of her life, this snow, getting to eat it for breakfast.

Magical moments. They will be stored away, deep in the hallowed halls of her mind.

I was just rereading The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. They explore moments we remember and revere the most. Some are tied to great emotion or to shared meaningful experiences. Others transcend “the normal course of events; they are literally extraordinary.”

The authors write: “The most precious moments are often the ones that cost the least.” They relate the story of a three-year-old who succumbed to a severe E. coli infection. They describe (brace yourself) her kidney failure, horrible pain, portions of her colon being removed twice, her heart failure and resuscitation; she desperately needed a kidney transplant and a compatible donor could not be found. At Halloween, her costume had to be laid on top of her because of all the tubes. She was still in the hospital as Christmas neared, and it began to snow:

For a child from Vermont, it was cruel, having to watch the snow through the windows. Wendy loved to make snowmen, to go sleigh riding. She hadn’t been outside for two months. Her lead nurse, Cori Fogarty, and and patient care associate Jessica Marsh hatched a plan. If Wendy couldn’t play in the snow, they would bring the snow to her. But it was more complicated than that. Because of Wendy’s heart condition, the staff was monitoring every milliliter of water that she consumed. So Jessica went and filled an emesis bucket with snow, weighed it, let it melt, and poured it into a graduated cylinder. Now they knew how to translate the weight of snow into its volume of water. So they went and filled the bucket with exactly the right amount of snow so that if Wendy ate it all — as three-year-olds are prone to do — she’d be just fine.

Can you see them, bringing the bowl of snow into the hospital room? Can you see that little girl’s expression when she saw it? Jessica Marsh said: “I have never seen such joy and pure innocence on a child’s face.” Wendy’s mother: “It was bliss, it was joy.” Many years later she would write: “It’s easy to forget the monotony of the endless days that stretched together during her recovery. But that one moment of brightness, that is one moment we will never forget.”*

Perhaps that is just the image we need right now, as COVID-19 drags on. A bowl of snow for a child…a bit of magic to escape the moment, maybe to carry us through.

As parents, as teachers, as writers, compassionate human beings, we have this power within us to imagine such moments, to make them happen. The most precious moments are the ones that cost the least…

Just so happens that as I write these words on this new, dark morning, flurries have started falling again.

Let us go and seek our bowl of snow. And where we might share it.

Maybe even for breakfast, with sprinkles.

*******

*Wendy’s story is from the chapter “Making Moments Matter” in The Power of Moments by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2017, 263-265). You might like to know that she did receive a transplant and went on to be an athlete.

Thanks to all at Two Writing Teachers for the power of your shared stories. Where there’s writing, there’s a way.

Fancy

She is sitting on my lap, scrolling on my phone.

—Franna, I want these.

—Ooooo, so pretty! I love those gloves.

—(nodding) Yes, and the crown. If I have them I will be SO fancy.

—(chuckling) Hmmm…I’ll see what I can do.

She adores being “fancy.” She’s adopted the word all on her own. I suspect Fancy Nancy books may have influenced this. Elsa in Frozen certainly has, hence the request for these particular ice-blue gloves and tiara—sorry, “crown,” my granddaughter declares. At four years of age, she can slink around the house like any haute couture fashion model, pausing with her face turned to one hiked little shoulder, eyes half-lidded…she can’t hold the pose for long, as the rest of us, her loyal subjects, dissolve with laughter.

Oh my, you are so fancy, we tell her.

Of course, she replies in her “fancy” voice, blinking slowly, before erupting in giggles and breaking her own spell.

The little package is waiting for her the next time she arrives.

No words for the magic on her face when she opens it, for the way she gingerly caresses the plastic pendant, as if it were the Hope Diamond. Within seconds she’s all decked out in her fancy finery. For the remainder of her visit, she walks with a regal air and won’t remove those gloves for anything except her breakfast of French toast.

I suspect she knows she’s the queen of our hearts.

One must be fancy even while helping to set up Christmas decorations.

In my humble opinion, the rest of the ensemble was necessary.

*******

Inspired by SOS — Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. This week’s prompt was “fancy,” with this quote from Donald Miller: “Everybody wants to be someone fancy. Even if they’re just shy.” If you write or want to write just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

Breakaway poem play

At SOS—Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog, Ruth encourages playing with paragraphing and line breaks, as “a simple break changes the sound and, sometimes, the meaning.”

I am resharing this memoir poem I wrote a few months ago, wherein I played with line breaks. I am still playing with them.

This is one of my favorites. For many reasons. A scene I witnessed last year, during my husband’s recovery:

The Passing

She comes out of his study carrying it
in her four-year-old arms
and his face is transformed, glowing
as if a passing cloud has uncovered the sun.
He leans forward in the recliner as she
drops it, kicks it, sets it spinning
—Oh, no, he says, this one’s not for kicking,
it’s for dribbling, just as the ball stops
at his feet. He reaches down, lifts it
with the easy grace of the boy on the court,
hands perfectly placed on the worn brown surface
in split-second calculation of the shot
so many times to the roar of the school crowd
so many hours with friends, his own and then
his son’s, still outscoring them all, red-faced,
heart pounding, dripping with sweat, radiant
—and at twelve, all alone on the pavement
facing the hoop his mother installed
 in the backyard of the new house
after his father died, every thump echoing
Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.
The game’s in the blood, the same DNA
that just last year left him with a heart full
of metal and grafts, too winded to walk
more than short distances, having to stop
to catch his breath, deflated
—it needs some air. Do you have a pump,
he asks his son, sitting there on the sofa,
eyes riveted to the screen emitting
continuous squeaks of rubber soles
against hardwood.
—Yeah, Dad. I’ve got one and the needle, too.
His father leans in to the little girl at his knee,
his battered heart in his hands:
—Would you like to have it?
She nods, grinning, reaching,
her arms, her hands
almost too small
to manage the old brown sphere
rolling from one to the other
like a whole world
passing.

Photo: Marcus BalcherCC BY-SA

More fun wordplay in my post title: A hinged basketball hoop that bends downward with a slam dunk and springs back into place is called a breakaway rim.

If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join the open-hearted group at
Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog.
#sosmagic

Also celebrating poems and poets in the vibrant Poetry Friday community – many thanks to Margaret Simon for hosting the Roundup at Reflections on the Teche.

Capitol recollections

Morning breaks over the Capitol. March 2018.

I was eleven the first time I saw it with my own eyes. 6th grade field trip. In those days, parents could ride on the bus with the children; they didn’t have to follow behind in a car. That is how my mother got to go. She volunteered to chaperone. She didn’t have a driver’s license. I think it was the first time she’d ever been to D.C.

All along the mall, teachers strategically organized students for photos with the best view of the Capitol behind them. Everywhere you looked were rows and rows of children, many carrying small flags. Not all were American, but all seemed excited. I walked, listening to the musicality of many languages I couldn’t understand.

I cannot remember if it rained, or what we ate, but I recall the beauty of my country’s capital enchanting me. In some gift shop I bought a crinkly parchment reproduction of the Declaration of Independence. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…I was happy that day. The Declaration came with a feather pen, to my delight. Then I spied a horse ornament on a glass shelf behind the register. Dark, stormy gray mingled with cream, frozen in the act of rearing up, forelegs arcing in the air, powerful muscles so realistically rendered, mane flowing in an imaginary breeze.

I did not know, at age eleven, that a horse symbolizes courage. That it can also represent overcoming adversity and caring for one’s emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being.

I only knew this twelve-inch plastic horse was beautiful and mighty. Captivated, I handed my last dollars to the clerk who wrapped my horse in layers of paper. I cradled it close all the long bus ride home.

It remained on the shelf in my bedroom until I married and moved out.

I’d return to D.C. again via Amtrak at nineteen, to meet my cousin who lived there. He would accompany me to an audition for acting school in New York City (that is another story). It was winter, icy-cold. Bundled and laughing, we roamed the windswept streets, past the lofty steps of the Capitol, talking of life, of the future, of being mavericks of the family.

Life takes many an unforeseen turn. He died young. I never went to acting school.

I had a family of my own instead.

Over the course of years, my husband and I made several visits to D.C. He’s a history-lover, an original poli sci major turned pastor. We took our children when they were small. Our last visit was early spring, 2018, with friends. What I noticed most on approaching the Capitol in early morning: the deep silence. Few people were out. The brooding sky made a compelling backdrop for the ornate dome, topped by Freedom. I took a picture. I tried to remember my first visit as a child, how enchanted I felt…long before I understood that relationships can disintegrate in unimaginable ways. In families, communities, countries.

The day after the attack last week, as I turned on my computer screen to meet with young elementary students, I felt numb, unfocused, ill-prepared. One by one at the appointed times, the children popped in, their faces aglow because…it might snow! A pandemic, ten months of reinvented school and life, volumes of ongoing, unfolding horrors in the news…yet they greet me with when is the snow is supposed to start?

It set a little part of my hippocampus jingling. Snow, as a literary symbol, means innocence, purity, tranquility. Even blessing.

Suddenly that old storm-gray horse souvenir resurfaced, vivid, nearly tangible, in my memory.

Strange.

I can’t say it’s symbolic of the American spirit. What does it mean to be American?

Maybe it’s symbolic of a child’s spirit. What makes it so mighty?

All I am sure of is this: a longing for overcoming and well-being.

For all.

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My previous post is a poem on the power of words to wound and heal: When.

Here are words inscribed in the U.S. Capitol:

On the Rostrum of the House Chamber – “Union, Justice, Tolerance, Liberty, Peace”

Behind the vice president’s chair in the Senate Chamber – “E pluribus unum” (“Out of many, one”)

On the stained glass window of the Congressional prayer room – “Preserve me, O God: for in thee do I put my trust.” Psalm 16:1

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with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Challenge, in itself a testimony to the power of stories and community.

Toothless wonder

She said it was wiggly.

But how? She just turned five.

She has a vivid imagination. Fanciful.

We checked.

It was wiggly.

Oh my, we said. Soon you will lose it and—

I know, I know, she sighed, in her world-weary sixteen-year-old-five-year-old way. You put it under your pillow and the tooth fairy brings you cash.

—Priceless.

Winter in the stars

So it is winter.

I woke far too early and happened to be reading about the winter solstice as it occurred at Newgrange, an elaborate Stone Age ancient temple and passage tomb in County Meath, Ireland. There the rising sun shines into a roofbox over the main entrance, just so, and fills an inner chamber with light for seventeen minutes.

Except that today it was cloudy at Newgrange and the sun failed to illuminate the little room.

Nevertheless, it fills me with intense wonder: the profound Neolithic effort and precision that went into making huge monuments perfectly aligned to capture the solstitial sun—Newgrange at sunrise, Stonehenge at sunset (Newgrange is older). There are more such ceremonial mounds across continents, centuries, and cultures. What did these ancient farmers believe? They were keen sky-watchers. They knew the patterns of the sun. Are these mounds evidence of sun-worship, or thanksgiving to deities for the sun, or hope of somehow harnessing its power? What part do the dead play in this attempt to capture the sun as it “stands still” (the origin of solstice)? How close do our best educated guesses come to understanding?

That’s only the beginning of wondering on this first day of winter, 2020.

The solstice was overshadowed by bigger news: In the evening, Jupiter and Saturn would come closer together than they have for 800 years. The “Great Conjunction.” Some call it the Star of Bethlehem or the Christmas Star.

In my front yard there is a Christmas star. It presides over a Nativity scene once belonging to my in-laws until the year someone vandalized the lighted figures and stole the Baby Jesus. My father-in-law painstakingly removed the spray paint but my mother-in-law didn’t want to set it up again, fearing it would invite vandals to return and maybe do more harm. They gave it to my family when our youngest son was three. He was so captivated by the Nativity that he began supervising the setting-up of it on the day after Thanksgiving, a tradition that continues to this day, twenty years later (with a replaced Baby Jesus, who is, after all, the point).

The Great Conjunction appearing so near Christmas could not be missed.

From the back deck I scoured the night sky, feeling inept, wishing that I could read the constellations and navigate by them the way the ancients did, like astronomers or sailors or stargazing travelers do. I do not have that gift of the Magi … but I tonight I recognized Mars, brilliant and yes, red, rising to the left of the moon. I read somewhere recently that Mars—named for the Roman god of war, the son of Jupiter—will be the brightest star in the night sky until 2035 (I’d made a note. Will research).

And I saw what I thought were shooting stars, something I am not sure I’ve ever really seen before… stars or pieces of stars were moving around the sky. They were. From my vantage point, not far from Mars, which was clearly rising higher… I began to think about apocalyptic literature, the stars falling one by one, the end of time…

I think it is a meteor shower. The Ursids do this every December. I have lived this long and haven’t paid attention, alas. But now, now I stand wondering, beyond my human ability to articulate, about all that is going on in the sky this night. As someone who loves symbolism… well. I cannot know the stories of the stars. If they are writing, it is in a language I cannot read. A mystery too high and yet so deep. Amazing that scientists know what they do about space. More amazing that stars do what they do, with their vast, celestial choreography…

And where is this Great Conjunction?

With some help from the SkyView app I find Uranus. And Neptune. And Deneb, the star at the head of the Northern Cross, part of the constellation Cygnus, the Swan. And—is that bright star high in the west what I’m looking for? No… that’s Vega. Meaning “falling eagle.”

There are bald eagles in this area. I have seen them. And just a couple of weeks ago I dreamed I was standing on my deck, right here facing the spot where the star Vega is now, except that in the dream it was day and an eagle flew by, precisely there…

I do not have enough lifetime to ponder all the things I so want to ponder.

That is a dark thought on this longest night of the year. Which reminds me of a job the Space Station astronauts have: looking for dark matter. What is dark matter? Scientists are not quite sure. They cannot actually see it in space, but they can see that something causes various effects on other objects, so they know it is there. What ever it—dark matter—is.

These thoughts stir my longing for quest, for story. This is one reason why writers write…but I am already on a quest, am I not?

SkyView says Jupiter and Saturn are behind the pine trees of my backyard.

Nothing for it but to load my husband, son, and Dennis the dachshund in the car to find a wide-open space.

Turns out that the end of our street was good enough.

We got out, looked back, and there—perfectly aligned over the cul-de-sac at the opposite end—the Great Conjunction. Lower than I expected, very bright, infinitely mysterious.

A rare, beautiful light shining in the darkness. Not a star, just two big planets huddled together.

What might Jupiter, the king of the planets, have to say to Saturn, or Kronos, or Cronus—Father Time?

Here’s the thing. They might not be talking but planets do emit sounds… only they may be drowned out by the stars. Stars sing. All the time. Ask NASA. Google it. Read Job 38:7. The universe plays its own symphony…

I am thinking about their song, what harmonics stars might have, as I sit down to write this post. I am saddened, just a little, not to have obtained a photo of the Great Conjunction (if only I had a telescope!). Yet…I saw it. My quest was rewarded; I landed in just the right place at the right time (and century) to witness it.

Which leads me back to the Newgrange site, where I discover that early tomorrow (Tuesday) the Office of Public Works is livestreaming the sunrise again! Will the sun still fill that little chamber? For how long? I will get to see for myself here in a few short hours… and now a photo of the entrance to that ancient mound catches my eye. That megalithic art, those swirls… why do they seem so familiar? I just saw them somewhere here in my house. Maybe in the new illuminated Bible I just got?

No.

—Ah. Found them. Over my fireplace, in a picture I painted at a gathering several winters ago… one does wonder, really, how much of the ancient remains deep within us, even now… we are, after all, made of stardust, and what else is our sun but a star?

Just one more bit of winter whimsy…

Photo: Newgrange. Bea y Fredi. CC BY

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good (long) night.