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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Snow shakes down

Snow shakes down from shrouded sky,
And blankets fields indifferently:
Snow obeys no “No Trespassing” sign,
Hops every fence, wall and hedgerow,
Observes no civil boundaries.
Snow, the universal carte blanche,
Covers all without lament.

Man, on the other hand, curses
And kicks back at the counterpane
With shovel, plow and blower;
Mechanically redistributes it
In mounds on streets and sidewalks.

Today I donned my snowshoes
Broke trail, crossed unbounded fields;
I paused, looked back to see—
My shallow silent tracks
Soon filled with wind-whisked snow.

"Breaking Trail" © Brian T. Maurer

“Breaking Trail” © Brian T. Maurer

November Snow

With falling snow
A certain silence descends
And for a moment
Behind the white curtain
Time stops.
All of that which makes up a life
Those things of burning importance
Suddenly seem of no importance now.
Only the snow
The snow descends,
Obliterating the sea of senses;
Only the snow
The snow descends,
White-washing the world
In numbness.

2012©Brian T. Maurer

Winter advisory

"Winter Window" 2012 © Brian T. Maurer

Since acquiring an iPad, I’ve gotten used to checking the Weather Channel app every night before retiring. Most times the predictions are humdrum, but every once in a while I’m brought up short by an unanticipated forecast.

Last night the app carried a winter weather advisory. A major storm would strike our area shortly before noon today. The advisory called for 3 – 5 inches of snow over the course of the afternoon and night, ending in sleet and freezing rain.

I got up early this morning to run several errands before the storm. I topped off the tank in my car and brought back additional gasoline in a 2-gallon container for the snow blower, should the need arise. I pulled the snow shovels out of the garage and cleared extraneous debris from the driveway. Last night my wife had made a big pot of chicken soup for dinner. I turned on the burner and let it simmer. After working outside in the cold, there’s nothing like coming in to a bowl of steaming soup .

I gave myself a pat on the back, pleased that I had been able to prepare for the weather in advance. But even the best laid plans can’t anticipate everything.

Mid-morning I stared at a reply that popped up shortly after I e-mailed the editor at one of the medical journals I write for. Entitled “Away,” the automated message informed me that the editor would be indisposed for an undetermined period of time. Several personal contacts were listed, among them his spouse and granddaughter—not the sort of contacts that you would typically find in an automated e-mail.

Immediately, I shot off a couple of messages to some friends, asking whether they’d heard anything recently about the state of this editor’s health. I’m probably jumping to conclusions, I muttered under my breath as I pounded the keyboard; but I couldn’t help it—my clinical nose was twitching. I feared something was up.

The snow started to fall shortly before noon. Within an hour the yard was blanketed white. Snow lay on the bare branches of the maples in back of the house and accumulated on the cars parked in the street. Outside the window of my office it continued to come down steadily. This was certainly no ordinary snow, I mused, recalling the advisory. Such a rate of descent portended more than a mere dusting.

Another message popped into my Inbox. This one was from the editorial assistant. She confirmed my fears: the editor was indeed in the hospital. She didn’t know the particulars. She imagined that he wanted to keep things quiet—no fanfare, no fuss. She admitted that she was worried too. She would let me know as soon as she heard anything more. Meanwhile, outside the snow continued to fall.

Soup—piping hot, chocked full of fine noodles with bits of celery, carrots and corn. I lifted a spoonful from the edge of the shallow bowl to my lips and blew softly to cool it off. The dog perched at my side, eyeing the spoon and begging for cracker crumbs.

Years ago a friend and I had visited the editor at his townhouse. For lunch he had warmed up some homemade soup on the stove.

How different the hospital must have looked through his eyes from the bed. This esteemed professor emeritus who had attended so many patients over the course of his lengthy career was now at the mercy of his own attending physicians, a patient himself.

A thick layer of heavy wet snow accumulated on the driveway. I downed a cup of fresh brewed coffee, pulled on my cap and coat and stepped outside into the winter whiteness. I grabbed the shovel on the back porch and started pushing the snow off the driveway, herring-boning my way down the long expanse of macadam to the street. As I worked the snow continued to descend. The wet snow stuck to my woolen cap and my coat; soon I was blanketed with the wet whiteness.

“Do you tip your barber?” the editor had written after reading the manuscript of my piece Haircut. “I still do, though people tell me it’s no longer done.”

“When I read your latest, I was reminded of the stout cigars I used to love when I was stationed overseas.”

“Crafted with your characteristic twist, served up with a touch of grace—imprimatur!

Imprimatur!—that was his stamp of approval: Let it be printed! I learned a bit of Latin phraseology through our casual correspondence. He was a wonderful mentor, even when he wasn’t aware that he was teaching.

By the time I reached the street the upper driveway was once again covered in snow. I shouldered my shovel and trudged back to the top. For the second time that morning I threw myself into my work.

Afterwards, I pulled the car into the driveway off the street. My wife let our little white terrier out and handed me the leash. We took a short walk around the block. Several times the dog stopped to shake the snow from her rough coat. She bounded through the snow like a miniature sheep, tugging at her leash.

Back home I brushed the snow from my cap and coat in the mud room. I dried the dog with an old towel, kicked off my boots and stepped into the warm kitchen. The soup still simmered on the back burner of the stove.

I hurried upstairs to check my e-mail. A new message from the editorial assistant informed me that the editor had suffered a stroke during cardiac catheterization. No one knew anything more at that point. I dashed off a quick reply, thanking her for the timely update.

Outside the snow continues to descend. The bare maple branches bend precariously under the weight of the wet snow. It will only be a matter of time until one of the weaker ones snaps.

Evening Descent

The only other sound’s the sweep
Of downy wind and snowy flake. —Robert Frost

I sit on a wooden stool by the window in the kitchen, watching the snow come down. Across the street in a yellow cone of lamplight tiny flakes swirl about as though encased in a snow globe. Each one in its own time descends to rest against the frozen earth.

Forty years ago after the last bell of the day, I sat on a similar stool in a high school classroom, listening to my teacher reminisce about his boyhood. Outside the second-story windows snow lay along the sills in fluffy mounds, muffling the sounds from the street.

“I never had much direction in life,” my teacher mused, taking a sip of coffee from his thermos. “Maybe that’s why I eventually ended up following in my dad’s footsteps.”

He was a tall man with reddish-brown hair that hinted at his Scotch-Irish ancestry.

“My dad was raised on a small farm across the river. My grandfather continued to live there after my dad left home. When I was a boy we would visit my grandfather on the farm. It was tucked away back in the hills off a winding blacktop road. You turned off onto an unmarked dirt lane and followed it a quarter mile to the farmhouse.

“My grandfather was a big man. He and my dad didn’t always see eye to eye. When things went well, the two of them would sit on the porch and talk. Sometimes they took a leisurely stroll out to the orchard, leaving me behind to play in the yard. When they had words, my dad would quietly walk me to the car; and we would head back out the dusty lane to the road.

“One winter day we made the trek to the homestead. The fields lay buried beneath a thick white blanket of snow. It started to snow again shortly after we arrived, and by late afternoon it was coming down heavy. My dad decided we had better go before the roads got bad, so we headed out in the old Chevy down the lane. The plow had already gone by, throwing a big mound of snow at the entrance. We couldn’t get through, and we couldn’t turn around.

“My dad left me in the car with the motor running and the heat on and walked back down the lane to the house. After what seemed a long time, he appeared with my grandfather. Each of them carried an old coal shovel. In the yellow beams of the headlights I could see them working together to clear the pile of snow from the end of the lane.

“When they finished, my grandfather reached out his hand for the shovel my dad had been using. My father hesitated, then surrendered it. Together they disappeared into the darkness through the swirling snow.”

My teacher stood quietly by the lab bench, thermos in hand, staring out through the high vaulted windows. I shifted on the stool. “What happened?” I asked.

“It wasn’t long before my dad came back. He dusted himself off as best he could and slid in behind the wheel. He gave it the gun and we broke through onto the plowed road.”

After a brief moment of silence he said: “That was the last time I saw my grandfather alive. The darkness had swallowed him up; he disappeared into the falling snow forever.”

Although he was a chemistry teacher, we had been talking about writing, how to craft a story, an impression. He was very interested in writing and had managed to produce several stories and the beginning of a work of science fiction.

Somehow I managed to find the words: “Maybe one day you’ll write that down, just like you told it to me.”

Sitting on the stool by the kitchen window this evening as the snow swirls down in the light across the street, I wonder if he ever had.

Today the river called me, Come

Today the river called me, Come,
My counterpane’s spread white:
A frozen mold
Formed by the cold
Of winter’s icy blight.

Today the river called me, Come,
Let chores and toil rest;
Browse through my book,
Come close to look
At nature’s wintry vest.

But ice was on the doorstep
And further down the drive;
I laced my boot—
Lips pursed and mute—
Determined to survive.

I spent the morning, afternoon,
And part of eventide
Chipping ice and clearing snow
Opening the paths that flow
Around on either side.

Today the river called me, Come,
Don’t waste this precious day!
The winter snow
Won’t last, although
For now it’s on display.

Today the river called me, Come—
I hovered close to home;
I made my choice,
Ignored her voice,
And turned my heart to stone.

2011©Brian T. Maurer