Bleak Mid Winter

January 15. A wind chime across the street is ringing in the howling wind. My window panes are rain-splotched. It’s still dark out at six in the morning. West, a massive line of red fills the weather map. Storms are on the way. With each gust, they push closer, bringing a cold front.

Yesterday, I took the patio furniture—wicker sofa and chairs—into the garage for shelter through the worst of winter. With them went bold red and yellow cushions with designs of a hummingbird, a parrot, a pineapple. They need protection from rain, snow, ice, and green moss that will set in on them, too, just like on the yard stones and wood of the deck.

When light comes and I walk and observe, the back yard sits in confusion. In what used to be a thick Kentucky fescue, every kind and sort of weed is coming up. Weeds I have never seen before; weeds I cannot identify. Used to be that with winter, the weeds died.

Used to be that when Christmas came, the weather turned cold. January came with jackets and caps and gloves. February, still consistently cold. The green blades of daffodils didn’t break ground on New Year’s Day. But now, the clump of daffodils set out against the Rose of Sharon is four inches high. Daffodils are heralds of spring. But spring is two months away; warm is three months away. Yet it is now.

Dad’s garlic is a foot high. Come spring, Dad will be gone fourteen years. When he was living and loving his garden in Mississippi, I dug up some of his garlic plants and brought them to Tennessee to plant at the Wimbledon house. When it was time for me to move, I dug them up and brought them to the Wade House. They’ve been pulled in so many directions, here and there and up and down, they’re as lost as last year’s Easter egg.

The hydrangea bush does it right. Big showy lime-white blooms have dried to brown crisps. Some get clipped by the wind, fling themselves to the ground, and roll through the yard like tumbleweeds. The entire bush goes to brown, bare, and into self. But you can bet your bottom dollar that, come spring, it will shoot up in all its showy beauty and bigness and stand up before the world and shout, “I am me, and I am here,” and will grow the biggest flowers you’ve ever seen.

Winter is a time of introspection, when all of life falls back to earth—goes into self to think, assess, conserve strength, and prepare. Even me.

It’s quiet out. Nothing’s quieter than a low, gray sky, or a soft, cold rain, or maybe a falling snow. The trees are silent, empty, exposing every noded twig, every twist of a limb, every turn of a branch. Growth is taking place deep down, in the quiet.

In winter, the day’s light is not long with us. I must use the time I have, look deep within, and trust that a good work is taking place beyond my perception. My power begins in the quiet.

In the quiet, with growth pushing up from the deep, which way will my branch turn? Who am I? Am I being true to the stature of my former self? To my creator? In the words I say? In the life I live?

Or will I succumb to winter’s heavy winds? Will I follow that cold, dark creek as it rolls over itself, over the rocks, lost in the empty canopy of scrub trees, turning its back to the source and moving toward sundown. Because it’s easier to follow the path downward, to go with the flow, to stay quiet. To let my light stay lost in winter’s short days.

I am in the cold, dead season building up, preparing for my future. For when spring comes. For when it’s time to move out of the quiet, stand up, be bold, and show truly who I am and who I belong to.

If You Can Keep It

Fifty years ago, give or take a year or two or three, I was in high school in a small Mississippi Delta town. I was in Concert Chorus. It was almost a cult in its own right, set apart from the others, with special privileges, like hanging out together in the chorus room during lunch break and playing our signature “Heart and Soul” in many variations on the piano until we ran it in the ground. We also presented public programs and sang songs dear to our hearts and values—songs that would last a lifetime in some little corner of our hearts.

One Christmas, we sang the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah to a packed town audience: “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.” It was a proud moment, and I still remember that night.

With spring and the coming around of early daffodils in the South came a season of patriotism. This was the time of Vietnam, a time of distrust of our government, a time of protests and rallies against war from those who deemed it wrong…and it seems after years went by, they were proven right. Against the killing of what would eventually be sixty thousand boys, men, who answered the call because they knew they’d have to or they were drafted to go. These were our classmates, our boyfriends, our friends’ boyfriends, and the boy across the street…who didn’t come home. Instead, two soldiers arrived in a black government car, stepped in unison up the front sidewalk, and told his mama he was dead.

That spring, we in the Concert Chorus put on our navy skirts and pants and white shirts and traveled to other schools, singing patriotic songs. We wore silly little crepe banners in red, white, and blue across our chests. Red, white, and blue. Like our flag.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands….”

I remember the Friday we went to Clarksdale to sing—a forty-five-minute drive to the north Delta. I remember the smell of Bob Neal’s black leather letter jacket as I sat beside him in the back seat of somebody’s car full of chorus kids. I remember someone had told us to be sure and stop at a hamburger drive-in just outside town. Be sure to order barbecued potato chips, they said, and see what you get. This was a time of plain potato chips only. But chips dusted with a little dried barbecue had just come out on the market. That drive-in wasn’t aware. And sure enough, with our order came a red and white cardboard tray full of plain potato chips with liquid barbecue sauce poured over them. We laughed and laughed and thought those owners were so backward.

We sang our hearts out that day—songs I still remember today and hold dear and know all the words to and take them all to heart. One of those songs was “This Is My Country,” composed in 1940, a year before Japan bombed us at Pearl Harbor and we entered a world war that my daddy fought in.

“What diff’rence if I hail from North or South
Or from the East or West?
My heart is filled with love for all of these.
I only know I swell with pride and deep within my breast
I thrill to see Old Glory paint the breeze.

This is my country! Land of my birth!
This is my country! Grandest on earth!
I pledge thee my allegiance, America, the bold,
For this is my country to have and to hold.”

Now, we’re in another time of divisiveness and rallies promoting separation of our own American people, and we’re in another long, long war. It’s hard to even finish the pledge now: “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” That’s not true. I’m sorry, but it’s not. Maybe it never really was. We are divided, and we don’t give liberty to all. Nor do half of us honor the flag, the Constitution, and our own dear beloved America above one man.

This could be the year… This could be the month… That we lose our democracy. That we decide to dismiss truth, place one man above the law, deny our oaths and pledges to the flag and the Constitution, and pledge loyalty to one man.

Have we got a republic or a monarchy? Benjamin Franklin was asked this at the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He answered: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

Can you?

Power of Phlox

January 1. I open the front blinds and catch a glimpse of pure fresh white appearing against brown, dead earth. I look closer. My phlox is blooming.

It’s winter, thirty degrees out, an even frost covering ground, cars, and rooftops. First day of a new year, first day of a new decade.

Creeping phlox, the Greek word for “flame,” boasts starry flowers—five-point petals densely packed into clusters. Perennials, they are sun-loving, bloom in spring and summer, and spread over rockery or tough clay soil. Their needle-like foliage stays green all year.

Now the green is juxtaposed against the fallen, red-tan leaves of the Japanese maple, the blanched-lifeless strands of leftover butter-yellow day lilies that spend their summers stretching high toward the sun, and the helpless wild geraniums curled in on themselves. The Hawaiian ginger is laid out flat for dead. Atop the green foliage, I see maybe twenty white blooms.

Why now? These little creepers love sun, drought, and heat. Winter is gray, cloudy, mostly wet, with chill. Is their blooming a sign?

“Flame” or fire in some cultures symbolizes God’s radiant glory and holiness and can be used as an instrument of his power. Many cultures view fire as a symbol of wisdom and knowledge.

And so . . . the new year begins, and I step into it seeing a need to look at the earth, at nature all around me, and know God and his ways and wisdom, as he manifests these in his creation. It’s for me to seek and find and know.

Crooked Creek Rolling in the New

With the dog I walk the trail beside the little river and stop to appreciate the old ghost tree, a sycamore, white, tall, winter bare. Three holes in its trunk have housed feathered families in the past. Behind it, across the creek, sits a big yellow earth mover. Progress?

I sit on the wooden decking beside this little river that runs the edge of the city park. It flooded here three days ago. The bridge about four hundred yards east of me on Port Royal Road sustained structural damage. The speed limit has been reduced to 20 mph, and driving over it was somewhat unsettling. The little river called Crooked Creek is almost blocked with packed debris of fallen trees and branches, all pushed into a heap. In kayaking, we call that a “strainer.” The obstruction affects the river flow. The water is quiet under the strainer, but rushes around it, gurgling and churning dangerously.

Across Crooked Creek is new construction, a neighborhood in the making. Also over there is an old barn, dilapidated, many of its weathered planks missing.

The sun shines down on me and the dog. I feel the warmth. I also feel the cool breeze brushing against my face. And I listen to the running of Crooked Creek.

The creek is full of the old. Old trees that have probably been there a hundred years. Old leaves on the ground from the last seasons. Old dirt banks holding the water since the beginning of time. What secrets this river could tell! South of the river, a new city park–walking trails, football and soccer fields, picnic areas, a splash pad, tennis courts, basketball goals. North of the river, muddy fields and new black asphalt streets with frames of new houses erected. And the old barn, which I’m sure they will tear down soon.

The old rolling along between the new. It has rolled through the farmland and pastureland for years, decades, generations. Now the new is inching in toward it, taking over the landscape.

I know how it feels.