A leap of faith

She squints in the sunlight, shades her eyes, stands on tiptoe in the rambling front yard of the old Iowa farmhouse. Even when she looks along the fence line as far south as she can, to the place where the gravel road bends west, she can’t see them, but she knows they’re there – hay bales almost twice her height, hay bales resting row on row in the fallow field where red-winged blackbirds build their nests. It’s a long, dusty trudge, but she’s going there today. Along the way, she reaches up to clasp her daddy’s hand, just to be certain he’s there.

She finds the hay bales even more imposing when she reaches them and stands in their towering shade. Around her, the thrum of insects; above her, limitless blue; within her, something that compels her to grasp thin twine, bury fingers in clusters of fragrant hay, hang on for dear life as small feet flail in search of a toe hold. It’s an upward battle she’s determined to win.

When at last she gains the summit, she’s rewarded with a breathtaking panorama. Verdant summer fields undulate before her and fade away into far forevers. This spot is the highest elevation in the county, and it feels like she’s standing on the shoulders of the world. The vista is indeed spectacular, but she hasn’t scrambled up here for the view. She has come for the jump.

It’s a family tradition, hay bale jumping. For years she has watched her siblings, five and eight years her senior, stretch much-longer legs to leap from bale to bale down the length of the field, a thrilling sight to behold. This year, she’s finally big enough to join them.

And this first jump will be the hardest.

Because hay bales need space to dry in sun and wind, the long rows do not touch. In between each row lies a two to three foot gap where tall grass grows. Hidden in the grass below, she knows, are sticky webs and worse, the spiders who spin them. Knowing they’re there is a powerful incentive not to fail.

If she hesitates, if she lingers too long, her fears will multiply – the gaps between the bales will widen, the shadows grow more sinister, the spiders’ ranks increase. She’s made it this far; she’s not going to back down now. She can’t look down, she mustn’t. Instead, she quiets a fluttering heart, summons her courage, holds her breath, and leaps. . .

A leap of faith

Like a young gazelle, she arcs through the air, braids flying. She’s suspended between earth and heaven, momentarily weightless. . .

And joy waits to catch her with outstretched arms.

Out of the background and into view

0037_Out of the background and into view

Our late-winter woods

This is the last day of what will surely go down in weather history as the Great Winter of 2014 – the longest, coldest, snowiest, fiercest winter in decades. Thank goodness, we’ve survived to tell the tale, and tomorrow, March 20th, marks the vernal equinox, the blessed, long-anticipated first day of spring. I join the winter-weary throng in my anxiousness to welcome spring’s return.

In our part of Illinois, the mercury has registered enough above freezing for the past week to melt away most of the snow, and on the northern slope of our woods, only a few stubborn patches remain. Since the historic snows of 2014 have all but vanished, our woods have again become a study in sepia tones. From the faded cloak of oak and maple leaves that cover the hills’ soft shoulders to the weather-grey bone structure of bark and bare branches, the woods are now largely monochromatic.

Throughout the day, I spend a good deal of time staring out my window, thinking. I’ll turn from my keyboard, glance up from a book, or set aside my sewing to gaze out over this hillside. I continually marvel at the way the wild inhabitants of our woods blend in with their surroundings. Squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, deer, raccoons, hawks, owls, and host of other local fauna are clothed in tones that precisely replicate fallen leaves and tree bark, and when these creatures aren’t moving, they’re almost invisible. Once, lost in thought, I stood at the window and stared out to the grey-brown woods, not focusing on anything in particular. All at once, the surface of the far hill began to shift and distort, like some kind of surreal animation. I blinked and peered more closely. It was a deer. Other fragments of the woodland jigsaw began to take shape. Two deer became visible, then three. Four. No, wait — five! I was astounded. Only moments before, five enormous animals had been hiding from me in plain sight.

Although I call the woods my home, I’m not an exclusively woodland dweller. I can be found out and about – at the market, volunteering at school, in a restaurant, at a show. I’ll wave hello, stop to visit. But even though I’m visible, I might be hiding in plain sight. When I’m wrestling with grief or brooding about something, it often suits me to blend in, keep a low profile, slip in and out, go undetected. It’s easier, sometimes, not to be noticed and to hide – even from myself. But there are times when it’s quite the opposite: I yearn to be seen, noticed, heard, understood.

Which leads me back to these monochromatic woods, the seasonal backdrop to my musings. Late last winter, on the cusp of spring, I was sitting in the well-worn rocking recliner we’ve owned since James was a baby. The day was wind-tossed, and dark clouds scudded across the sky. Rays of occasional sunlight popped in and out of the fast-moving clouds like a child at play with a dimmer switch. I was studying the brown boughs of the trees as they swayed in the wind. A flock of newly returned robins were feasting on bittersweet berries hidden among the tall vines that dangle from the highest branches of our oaks. When the robins’ backs were turned to me, they were indistinguishable from the tangled vines. But each time a bird shifted to face me, I could spot it instantly. Like a snapshot that turns up from time to time, this fleeting moment on a windy day has remained with me, and I’ve thought about it over and over again — the red breasts of robins, visible among drab branches.

There are times it serves us to conceal our hearts, to come and go, to fade into our surroundings, to protect ourselves. But if what we yearn for is to stand up and be noticed — for ourselves alone, for the emotions we’re compelled to reveal, for the ideas we long to share — there’s a risk involved. It takes courage to step out of the background and into view. Like robins in the late winter woods, we must be willing to turn and expose our hearts.