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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.

Away from all pests

“[W]e understood that our vocation, our true vocation, was to move for eternity along the roads and seas of the world. Always curious, looking into everything that came before our eyes, sniffing out each corner but only very faintly – not setting down roots in any land or staying long enough to see the substratum of things; the outer limits would suffice.”

— Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries

“The pest guy is here!” my wife announces from where she stands by the kitchen sink, hands immersed in soapsuds.

I peer out the side window. A white pickup truck sits in our driveway with the engine idling. The magnetic sign on the driver’s door advertises a local pest control company. They are here to do the bi-monthly pesticide applications to our house and garage. This will be their last scheduled visit to our home until spring.

I slip my arms through my bulky vest, reach for my cap and step out the kitchen door onto the stoop. A brisk breeze shoots across the back yard and stings my cheek. I zip up the vest and raise the padded collar around my neck.

A young Latino sits in the driver’s seat of the vehicle, head down, jotting notes on a clipboard resting in his lap. He looks up as I approach and rolls the window down.

“Hello,” he says with a wide smile. “I’m here to do the pesticide application to your house and garage. Is this an okay time?”

“No problem,” I say. “I’ve got the day off. Do you need to access the basement? I’ll open the hatchway for you.”

He descends from the truck and reaches a portable sprayer from the rear. He pauses to don a heavy camouflage coat before following me around the house to the other side. “It really got cold,” he says with a shiver.

“It’s almost Thanksgiving,” I say. “Winter is just around the corner.”

I bend down to open the hatchway, then descend the concrete steps to the basement. In the dim grey interior my hand finds the switch , and the cellar floods with light.

The young man proceeds to make his way around the periphery of the stonewall foundation, pumping the tank, applying a fine spray as he moves along.

“I haven’t seen you before,” I say. “Have you worked for the company long?”

“This is my first season,” he says. “I picked it up as a part-time job. Actually, tomorrow is my last day.”

“Really? You don’t much care for the work?”

“Oh, the work is fine; but it’s seasonal. We all get laid off for the winter. Next week I’m heading out to California on my motorcycle until spring. I’ve got some good friends out there. If I can find a full time job, I might not come back.”

“I imagine they’ve got pest control services out there too,” I say.

“Oh, I wouldn’t work in pest control,” he says. “Actually, I’m a trained massage therapist. I used to have a good job working at one of the local hospitals, but that fell through. I picked up this gig just to get me through the summer and fall. I figure I can probably find work as a massage therapist in California.”

“I’d wager the odds would be pretty good in your favor,” I say.

He finishes the application, and we retreat back up the concrete stairway. I secure the hatchway doors. “The garage is out back,” I say. “I’ll open it up for you.”

The wind cuts against our faces as we round the back corner of the house.

“It’s cold,” he says. “Glad I’ve got my heavy coat. I don’t care much for winter.”

“That’s New England,” I say, as I pull up the garage door.

He sprays an application along the perimeter. “I’ll treat the outside of both buildings,” he says. “You don’t have to wait outside. I’ll just pop the receipt in your mailbox when I’m done.”

“I don’t mind,” I say. “I just got back from a morning walk myself.”

He sets off and shortly finishes his assigned task. He stows the sprayer in the back of the pickup and reaches into the cab for the receipt. “Here you are,” he says with a smile.

“Thanks,” I say. “Good luck on your cross country motorcycle trek.”

“Yeah,” he grins. “I’ve never done anything like that before. It’s a little scary, but it should be fun. I like to explore; I like to meet new people. I just hope I can beat the snow.”

I watch him back the white truck out of the driveway and disappear down the street.

To be young and free, I reflect; unencumbered, looking ahead to a cross country trek to California, where sun and surf await one’s arrival; away from all pests, if only for a season.