Wings of eagles

“I saw the eagles again today.”

I looked up from the plate of food resting before me on the dinner table. “Where?” I asked.

“They were gliding in the air overhead just this side of the mountain,” my wife said. “I was out for my morning walk when I looked up, and there they were.”

Individually, we had sighted eagles in the village over the course of the past year, but they had always been solitary birds, sometimes perched or soaring above the river. Earlier this month was the first time that my wife and I had seen two mature birds together in flight.

“Where did they go?” I asked.

“They kept circling, then eventually they disappeared over the ridge.”

Quietly, I closed my eyes and watched them: circling, soaring, clockwise and counter-clockwise, currents of air pulsing through the tips of their long wings, white heads and tails glistening against the morning clouds.

Ever since I was a boy, I had always dreamed of seeing an eagle. I had studied plenty of pictures, emblems on the national shield, photographs on postage stamps, drawings in books on birds of prey.  I had watched native American dancers whirl about to the beat of drums, their headdresses adorned with eagles’ feathers twisting and turning in the air. Later, as a sojourner of sorts, I had kept a watchful eye over the course of my travels, always on the lookout, hoping one day to catch a glimpse of a mature eagle in flight.

Decades passed before I finally got the chance to see a one; and now here they were in pairs, soaring  above the small village that we have come to call home for nearly forty years.

Hope can bring us a long way.  Sometimes we wait years to witness our childhood dreams fulfilled. Perhaps hope requires a healthy measure of time to bring us to the point where we become capable of appreciating such gifts, long-awaited but yet unseen.

The Art of Medicine: A poetic tongue in cheek

Twenty minutes before closing time, a purple car rattles into the empty parking lot outside the after-hours care center. From my perch near a side window, I observe the young couple as they gather their toddler from the back seat. more»

Interested readers can now access my latest Art of Medicine column — A poetic tongue in cheek — 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.

In the dead of winter

In between low granite walls
Two workmen stand in snow,
Watching as the steel rod falls
To pound the earth below.

Some distance from their younger years,
I pause in my descent;
The pounding sound pricks up my ears
And echoes some lament.

Further by the frozen stream
Woodpeckers tap their tone;
In winter stillness, cold extreme,
Ice floes crack and groan.

In the distance whistling sounds
Break through this winter day;
The noontime ironhorse resounds
And bleats a hollow neigh.

Down among the bittersweet
Descending in a rush,
Bluebirds peck the russet meat
And flit among the brush.

Small warm-breasted fires burn,
Reminding me in winter’s chill —
Though every creature waits his turn —
I move among the living still.

1/10/2017

While Reading Milton in the Parlor on an Afternoon in Winter

When Winter, in her flirtatious ways,
In part to tease, part to amaze,
Showers down her powd’ry air
Upon the Lantskip, cold and bare,
I sit amidst my books and things
And ponder idly what Winter brings:
Ice and cold and snow and chill,
Titmice on the windowsill;
Steel blue skies with ravens black,
Icy dams that groan and crack;
And in the night, while half asleep,
The snowplow rumbling down our street.
The air grows cold, the house now still;
The furnace coughs —
Then burns to break the chill.

“These pleasures Melancholy give,
And I with thee will choose to live.”

1/9/2017

A short list

A bucket list can be long or short, simple or more intricate. Some bucket lists carry expensive price tags; others not so much.

The bucket list of a young boy is understandably different from that of an old man. Boys look up to contemporary heroes; old men tend to look back to boyhood heroes long gone. Who can say what wishes might wash through the mind of a young boy as he nears the end of his short life?

I know of such a lad who, weak and wounded, had voiced a burning desire to see the original Declaration of Independence. In his debilitated state a trip to Washington, D.C., wasn’t feasible; he could barely sit up in bed at home. But somehow the word went forth, contacts were made, officials were informed, with the upshot that the curator of the National Archives arranged to close the public exhibit for a short period of time, long enough to skype a private showing for this youngster lying in bed at home several states away.

I’m told that the curator himself had been handed a terminal diagnosis, although in his case it would be some time, certainly much more time than had been granted the young boy; but time resides in the moment, and one moment lived in the now is priceless compared to hours or days of dulled awareness.

The curator explained the history of the document to the boy: the discussions that formulated the radical ideas that underpinned it, the drafts done by Jefferson, the changes by Adams and Franklin, the appended signatures giving approval and consent. The camera focused on the text of the parchment itself, penned in Timothy Matlack’s fine hand, punctuated by John Hancock’s signature centered among the other fifty-five below.

I am not certain how long this private showing lasted: perhaps several minutes, perhaps half an hour, perhaps an eternity; but in the end the boy’s wish was granted, and an invisible check mark was placed next to the item on the short list, signifying its completion.

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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