Christmas gifts

Christmas morning my wife took sick.

At the last minute we had to cancel our plans to host Christmas dinner. For the first time in forty years there would be no roast turkey with all the trimmings on the big table at the house.

I found the remnant of a loaf of crusty bread and hastily concocted a breakfast of french toast with a bit of bacon on the side.

My wife retreated to the bedroom upstairs while I cleared the kitchen table and did the dishes.

Afterward, I donned my padded vest, pulled on my woolen cap and stepped outside into the sharp cold winter sunshine. I ambled down the street to the center of town, then turned northwest to follow the road to the park.

Footsteps of previous visitors had iced up overnight. I found it easier to make my way through the crunchy snow along the margins of the path.

I skirted the frozen pond, blazing a trail through the brush under the bare towering trees at the far edge to the point where the two streams meet. The current had kept the water open in the center; great swaths of grey ice clung to the shoreline. Nothing moved in the quiet stillness: no winter bird, no air, no cloud in the sky.

Shortly, I turned and retraced my steps. Fifty yards further up along the bank I paused to survey the barren landscape. My eye glimpsed a grey shadow dart across the ice at my feet as a big bird dropped from its perch high overhead and floated over the dark open water.

A few powerful beats of its great black wings propelled the bird high above the river. Deftly, it dropped and circled, then climbed higher, then dropped again. With each pass overhead the brilliant white tail and white head flashed in the mid-morning sun.

Finally, the eagle turned and banked; then, with several more wing beats, it sailed off over the tops of the far trees.

***

This morning I thought to return to the point to see if I might catch another glimpse of the eagle.

Rather than make an approach through the town, I cut across the cemetery and picked up the trail along the river instead.

Several birds shifted in the trees on the far shore. One grey-blue form suggested a likely kingfisher, but I hadn’t brought my binoculars and couldn’t make a positive identification. Somewhere overhead a carpenter bird tapped out its coded message on a decayed limb.

As I stood there in the frozen snow, a small grey bird darted suddenly into the brush along the near bank and piped amidst the branches. Perhaps a sparrow, I thought; but no: this bird was uniformly grey.

Curiously, he flitted from branch to branch, seeking sustenance of some sort, finding nothing but a few lone winterberries, which seemingly held no interest.

Closer and closer he came, until finally he got to within several feet of where I stood.

Here he paused momentarily, bobbing nearly upside down on a fine twig; and eyed me briefly, revealing a bright yellow swath along the center of his crown: a little kinglet, meticulously surveying his vast winter wooded domain.

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Secular and sacred

“We must learn to listen to the cock-crows and hammering and tick-tock of our lives for the holy and elusive word that is spoken to us out of their depths.”  —Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey

The snow that fell on Sunday night still blankets the landscape this Tuesday morning: a hard, crisp crust that crunches underfoot. Nature has changed her palette to blues and greys and whites with speckles of burnt orange and reds, remnants of winter-berries and bittersweet.

Cars and trucks of workers line the lane below the cemetery at Governor’s Bridge. Roofers mill about, trussed in safety harnesses, sucking morning cigarettes and sipping coffee to ward off the cold. Stacks of shingles rest nearby, waiting to be carted on broad shoulders aloft.

The path that runs along the riverbank has been blazed by boots and paws, frozen impressions now crisscrossed by tracks of rabbit, squirrel and fox. The pilings from the long gone railroad bridge stand sentinel like in the river, etched in white. Ice has formed in grey sheets along the banks, framing the smooth open water as though it were a full length mirror reflecting the blue sky overhead.

Just below the great bend in the river a kingfisher chatters, drops from a bleached branch and disappears downstream.

The pond in the park is frozen. Cracks have formed in the blue-grey ice: dendrites of neurons search for synapses among the shadows.

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A lone Canada goose bleats as it drifts down with the current above the rocky remnants of the old sluice.

On the road up ahead hard-hatted men huddle in small groups below a line of towering maples. Overhead a chainsaw buzzes in spurts; lithe branches drop and splinter as they strike the ground.

“Move along,” one man tells me. “This is a work area.”

I respect his authority. This morning he is the foreman, while I am a mere bystander, pausing only to watch.

I stop in at Village Auto to make an inquiry. After a long bout of illness, now recovered from injury, the owner is back to work. Sounds of hammer strikes and jets of compressed air erupt from the back bays, affirming his presence.

Further up Winthrop Street a laborer emerges from the front doorway of a gutted house and heaves an armful of splintered boards onto the pile of debris in the side yard.

Everywhere men are at work in the village this morning: tearing down, building up, trimming, fixing, repairing, improving both their lot and the collective lot of their fellow human beings.

I too have been busy this morning, keenly observing laborers and landscape, periodically pausing in the midst of all this activity, seemingly unable to differentiate the secular from the sacred, perfectly content.

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The Art of Medicine: The source of your strength

She appears in the hallway outside the laboratory, spray bottle in hand. Dressed in hospital scrubs, she’s just arrived for the evening shift, while I’m zipping up my coat to go home. more»

Interested readers can now access my latest Art of Medicine column — The source of your strength — recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants.

Please note that all of my previously published Art of Medicine pieces can now be accessed here.