voices in the rain

The first half of June has been a steady progression of rainstorms lumbering up through the valley like a herd of traveling pachyderms. Day by day, nearly hour by hour, thunder’s heavy footfall rattles the windows to signal the approach of a new storm. Black clouds blot the horizon, dwarfing farm and city alike. Daylight is lost as the stampede passes overhead, trampling sky, shaking earth, pounding rooftops, flooding streets with great spouts of torrential rain, jolting sleepy creeks and rivers straight out of their beds.

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Today, rain falls with such furiousness, I can’t see across the woods. Beyond rain-pebbled glass, an English sparrow waits out the worst, while a pair of nuthatches huddle, beaks downward, on a sliver of dry bark beneath an arching canopy of rain-glossed oak leaves.

“Seven inches of rain in six days,” mutters our drenched postal carrier as he delivers the day’s dripping mail. “I could grow rice in my back yard.”

Returning to my reading chair, I’m snug and dry in a circle of yellow lamplight. I lose myself in my book of poetry, let the storm pass.

After a while, the staccato drumbeat of raindrops decreases, the sky’s low ceiling lifts, a robin begins to chirrup.

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I lay aside my book and slip out on the front porch to watch swift-passing clouds. Our Japanese maple’s slender wrists wear delicate bracelets of shimmering droplets that wink in the light of an emerging sun.

Rainwater gushes down the sloping curve of our court, racing toward the heavy iron gutter in the turnaround. In bare feet, I pick my way across spongy, saturated grass, step off the curb and into rushing water. How glorious it feels…

Time’s forward march slows just enough to let peals of childish laughter echo back to me from rainy days gone by. I see them in mind’s eye now, our darling children: big sister, little brother, littlest sister twirl bright umbrellas, hold hands, leap into puddles, splash with joyous abandon in a steady downpour, call out to one another, to me…

Treasured memories, these voices in the rain.

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Sunbeams peep through overhead boughs as parting drops splash and spread ripples across puddled water.

My neighbor, a youthful woman in her seventies, spies me from her kitchen window and comes out in bare feet to say hello.

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Following my lead, she eases her feet into the waning curbside flow. We stand together and swap stories of our latest successes and failures in the garden, talk about what’s new with our children, speculate as to when or whether the next storm will strike.

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After a while, we part ways, she to her sewing, and I to my flowerbeds. Before I return to the house and the poems that await, I lean close to revel in a few more moments of rain-rinsed loveliness. Everywhere, blossoms and leaves glisten in the light.

I breathe a sigh, close my eyes, lift the petals of my heart in gratitude for nature’s gifts, for earth and sky, for sunlight and showers, for springtime blossoms and summer’s plenitude, for the seasons of my life, for sweet, remembered voices in the rain.

The still point at the center of my life

0032_The still point at the center of my life

This slumbering hillside forms the backdrop of my childhood. This frozen pond, these winter trees are part of the small wilderness I consider home. I grew up here.

In the spring of 1959, when I was just nine months old, my parents sold their small bungalow across town and moved to their new home: a two-story colonial nestled among the trees on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi. Apart from the time I spent away at college, this house, where my dear father still resides, is where I lived until I married and moved to a home of my own.

From the dawning of my awareness, these woods have welcomed me. When I was small, I’d stand at my bedroom window, rest my chin on the white wooden sill, and gaze up at the budding oaks, whose unfurling leaves waved to me with hundreds of tiny, pink hands. When the cool breath of evening wafted in through my open window and billowed my white curtains, I’d drift to sleep to the soul-filling sound of tree frogs trilling beside the pond.

I spent my childhood wandering these woods, and I still know them by heart. I can find the places where spring beauties and wood violets grow. In summer, I can walk the winding gravel road that curves around to the pond and spot the turtles that sun themselves on half-submerged logs. Chickadees still sound an alarm if I venture too close, and the turtles still splash their hasty escape. In autumn, when the wind brings rumors of the coming chill, showers of leaves spiral down to form a lush tapestry for my feet on this woodland floor. The sun slants in through bare branches in winter, spilling pools of golden light across the snow-covered pond, painting long shadows on the blue-washed hills where I used to sled with my friends.

Like woodland creatures that retreat to nests, thickets, and burrows, I have always sought refuge in quiet places where I can let the busy world pass by. My favorite childhood hideaway was under the low canopy of bridal wreath bushes that bordered our property. Invisible to passersby beneath slender branches that swept the grass, I’d make myself as small as possible and hide there during neighborhood games of hide-and-go-seek. I loved to sit under the bending branches in June and shake their clustered blossoms, causing a storm of white confetti petals to rain all around me. In this out-of-the-way place under the bridal wreath, I’d listen to robins and cardinals sing in the oaks overhead, feel the wind cup my face, watch a ladybug explore a leafy world. Perhaps it’s just my temperament, or perhaps it’s because I grew up so close to nature’s heart; whatever the reason, I’ve always had a need to be quiet, safe, and alone in a place where I can give myself over to uninterrupted thought.

Once, when I was three, Momma lost me. She had sent me upstairs for my afternoon nap, but later, when she came to wake me, I was nowhere to be found. She looked for me upstairs, then downstairs. She went outside and called. I didn’t answer. She made a second search of the house, then ran to the woods, terrified I might have wandered down to the pond alone. She asked our next door neighbor to please help look for me. They called my name across the woods, walked down to the pond, came back to the house, growing more and more frantic. I don’t know how long they searched, but I was discovered at last, sound asleep on the cool floor under my bed. I was safe, and I wasn’t scolded. I wasn’t trying to be naughty; I had simply isolated myself in a quiet place.

All these years later, I’m still this way. During the growing season, you’ll find me outdoors, tending my flowers, listening to the crickets, watching a hawk circle overheard. If I can’t be outside, you’ll find me somewhere indoors in a quiet spot. As the years have gone by, I have come to understand how deeply impressionable and sensitive I am. Life has such an impact on me that I require hours of stillness to restore my senses and process my thoughts.

This is why I love these woods: they were my first sanctuary, the still point at the center of my life. They’ll always be part of my heart’s terrain, and I’ll forever be a child of this place, as rooted as the trees that have grown up around me.

A Valentine’s Day postscript

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I could feel the years melt away as my car climbed the winding, wooded hill that leads to her home – a place I frequented as a child, a happy household where I was welcomed and loved. Although the snow had stopped falling, my tires spun and slipped as I neared the summit. I didn’t care about driving in the snow. It was Valentine’s Day, and I was on a mission.

As I pulled close to her house and turned off the motor, I saw her, and my heart froze. She was shoveling her driveway. She’s in her late eighties now, and she’s had recent health issues. She shouldn’t have been out there – but there she was.

I selected a petal-perfect, pale pink rose, and, holding it in front of me, I walked toward her through the snow. As I made my approach, she straightened up and peered in my direction, not recognizing me at first. Then, her eyes flew open, and she said, “Amy Neighbour! Oh, my . . .” as I handed her the long-stemmed rose and wished her a happy Valentine’s Day. She looked so petite as I beamed down at her, this sweet woman who used to tower over me. I’ve loved her for as long as I can remember. Her kind, brown eyes shimmered through tears. She hugged me, looked up, and softly said, “Oh, Amy – you didn’t have to do this.”

Gently taking the shovel from her mittened grasp, I said, “I have an idea. You can take this rose in out of the cold and find a bud vase for it, and I’ll do some of this shoveling while you’re inside.” She agreed, and took slow, careful steps back to her house. Knowing it would be a while before she returned, I kicked into high gear, shoveling as fast as I could to prevent her from needing to come back outdoors.

As I finished the last few passes, she opened her front door and called out, “Amy Neighbour, you stop that! Right now!” Chuckling to myself, I waved a gloved hand and grinned. Merrily ignoring her protests, I completed the driveway. As I returned the shovel to her front door, she said, “Amy! You did not have to do that!”

I smiled at her and answered, “I know I didn’t have to, I wanted to. Plus,” I teased, “it was fun to hear you scold me. I haven’t been scolded like that since I was ten years old! You made forty-five years disappear, just like that! I’m young again! Whee!!” I threw my arms out to emphasize my point, and we both laughed. She invited me to come in.

I felt the deep silence of her well-kept home as she closed the front door. She took me to a small side table where she had placed her rose. She’d trimmed the stem and set it in a bud vase beside two small Valentines she’d received in the mail from some of her far-flung family. She picked up one of the cards and handed it to me so that I could absorb the sentiment and read the loved signature. Then she offered me the other card. Afterwards, she positioned both cards upright on the table – just so – next to the bud vase with its pink rose. Here it was – her simple shrine to love. We stood there together and looked at it.

Although she didn’t mention how much she misses her husband, who died over a year ago, we both felt his absence. He was such a good man; he was her everything.

I had more roses to deliver, but I stayed with her as long as I could. She wanted to hear the latest news of our busy three, so I gave an update. We reminisced about my mother, who was one of her dear friends, and we agreed that it seems impossible she’s been gone for ten years.

Time ran out, and I needed to leave. I put my arms around her and said goodbye, wishing I could protect her from loss and heartache, from sorrow, from silence. Hugging her, I knew that all the love in the world could never accomplish it. Still, I had done what I could to bring joy to her day. I smiled and waved as I walked back to my car. She smiled as she stood in her doorway and watched me go.

Later that day, I went to the computer to check my inbox and saw that my friend, Katrina Kenison, had posted a lovely Valentine’s Day message on her blog. A beautiful question she posed popped out at me. “Tell me,” she wrote, “how are you making love visible today?” I debated as to whether to write about how I’d spent a portion of my Valentine’s Day, being one who likes the idea of not letting my right hand know what my left is doing. But after a small thank you note arrived in my mailbox yesterday, penned in a slightly wobbly script, thanking me for the Valentine’s Day rose and our pleasant visit, I decided that I would write about it. On behalf of needy souls everywhere, I’m willing to speak up.

Within the framework of our own busy lives, there is much we cannot do to lift another heart or alleviate a set of circumstances. Still, there is much we can do. It doesn’t have to be a holiday or a special occasion to open our eyes, and our hearts, to the needs of others. We don’t have to look too far to find opportunities to share love. Opportunities are right here, right now. The only prerequisite is a pair of eyes to see and a heart willing to give.

I’ve decided to post Katrina’s pertinent question on my inspiration board as a reminder that while I can’t do everything, there is something concrete I can do each day to answer this all-important question: Tell me, how are you making love visible today?

In her recent memoir, Magical Journey, Katrina Kenison offers these words:

“Meaning and purpose come not from accomplishing great things in the world, but simply from loving those who are right in front of you, doing all you can with what you have, in the time you have, in the place where you are.”

Well said, Katrina. I couldn’t agree more.

While my pretty one sleeps

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A portrait of Momma, painted in 1960 by Shirley Heysinger.

When I was a child, Momma used to sing to me. As sunset petaled the evening sky, she’d gather me in her arms and rock me in my small bedroom with its dormer window and sing Tennyson’s “Sweet and Low” before tucking me into bed. Nestled close to her heart, I loved to feel her calmly inhale before she’d croon the familiar words:

Sweet and low, sweet and low,
Wind of the western sea,
Low, low, breathe and blow,
Wind of the western sea!
Over the rolling waters go,
Come from the dying moon and blow,
Blow him again to me;
While my little one, while my pretty one sleeps.

Music and poetry were my nighttime coverlet, and my gentle mother filled my waking hours with beauty. When I was small, she’d recite for me the poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson, Edward Lear, Eugene Field – all the magical poems of childhood. She showered me with words, and my budding heart absorbed them.

From a tender age, I understood that poetry was a powerful vehicle that could spirit my beautiful mother away to a mysterious, tangent plane. As she spoke the words she loved and knew by heart, I’d watch her eyes soften, then fix on a point somewhere beyond my sight. She was with me, yes. But she was also in a faintly wistful, ineffable elsewhere. Not fully comprehending it, I was witnessing her poetic otherness. I called it her “faraway look” or her “faraway place,” and often wondered to myself about it.

Momma was, and will ever be, my muse. She instilled in me a love for all things beautiful – language, music, art, and the whole of creation. An accomplished poet in her own right, she taught me by example: the transcendent words she chose, the exquisite, handmade things she created, the ideals she cherished showed me that poetry is everywhere, in absolutely everything. The name of my blog – My Path with Stars Bestrewn – is a line drawn from one of her lovely poems. Because of her, I go always in search of the beautiful – not to bring her back, because she lives now in all things, but to be with her in her faraway place, a place of beauty, a place where my soul feels at home.

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Momma, on the left, sits with her sister in my grandmother’s lap.

A dreamy, thoughtful child with large, blue-grey eyes and dark, baby fine hair, Momma grew up in Denver, Colorado during the Depression. She had a deep attachment to the mountains, which were visible from her doorstep. She confided to me that she felt most at home wandering the alpine meadow near her family’s summer cabin in the Rockies, where she’d pick wildflower bouquets and make little hideaways for herself among the nodding, sky blue columbines. Even now, when cumulus clouds billow like dreams on the midwestern horizon and form magnificent mountain kingdoms, I envision her, a child once more, traversing an enchanted heaven, clambering up sunlit slopes lighter than air, wandering endless, starry meadows.

Momma remains so vivid, so indelible, so completely alive to me. It doesn’t seem possible that today – February 10th, 2014 – marks the tenth anniversary of her death.

In the first days after Momma died, I’d walk to the mailbox to search the day’s mail with an insistent sense that I should be hearing from her. In all my forty-five years, I had never gone so long without communicating with her. I half expected to find a postcard addressed to me in her elegant hand, detailing her whereabouts, what she had seen thus far, telling me how much she loves me.

Momma was a wise, loving, gifted artist whose creativity touched every facet of her life. Highly attuned to the wonders of the natural world and the creatures who inhabit it, she had a special love for birds.

Her favorite way to begin the day was to slip outdoors at sunrise to hear the chickadees chant their morning praises. Beneath her kitchen window, which looked out over a wooded hill, she supplied a sumptuous, year-round banquet for the birds: black oil sunflower seeds and millet, ears of dried corn and peanuts in the shell, suet cages and stockings filled with thistle. She took delight in watching her feathered throng flutter in throughout the day to feast at her table and sing in her trees.

One December, Momma was seized with an urge to reinvent her Christmas tree. Ornaments from previous Christmases were banished to the basement while she adorned her tree with, as she termed it, “only things that sing, or fly.” From that year on, her tree was an object of delicate beauty. Spare and elegant, its boughs were a shimmer of white lights, an artful scattering of lovely birds, a butterfly or two, and a gorgeous renaissance angel with airy wings and flowing robes.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I had a special date with providence one April Saturday in 2003, less than a year before Momma died. I went to a local garden show and was inexorably drawn to a set of plush Audubon birds created in collaboration with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Each realistic bird featured a mechanical button that played a recording of its authentic song. Cardinals, robins, bluebirds, and woodpeckers heaped the bin. Intrigued, I sorted through the various birds, testing the song of this one and that, until I unearthed a house finch, whose wild, sweet call embodies the very soul of spring. I purchased the little house finch and brought it home to give to Momma as a simple Easter gift.

One balmy afternoon just before Easter, Momma phoned. “Amy,” she said, “if you’re not busy, will you come over and help me with something? There’s a bird singing in the woods, and I don’t know who it is.” Momma’s home was nearby, and her wish was ever my command. I jumped in my car and drove over.

I found her out on her back deck, gripping her cane, quivering from the effort of moving her frail body through space. Her neck was craned upward, her face filled with joy. “There,” she said, and pointed to the outstretched arms of a budding oak. “Listen! Who is singing?”

I listened for a moment, and then, sure enough, sweet and clear, the ethereal song of a house finch wafted down from a lacework of greening branches. I couldn’t believe my good fortune and secretly rejoiced. She was going to love the little gift I’d just bought for her. We stood there together, Momma and I, listening to the house finch’s ravishing song. Like liquid sunlight, the sublime melody cascaded over us.

The secret underpinning of Momma’s beautiful life, I have come to realize, was that she viewed the world through a rare lens of innocence. Her tender, blue-grey eyes were the eyes of a child. She retained an open-hearted, childlike soul without ever being a childish person. And, oh – how much the child in her adored that little plush house finch I brought to her on Easter, tucked in a nest-like basket.

Patient, brave, and uncomplaining, Momma accepted the illnesses that leached life and mobility from her – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, painful osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis. Discouraged by the ways her world was shrinking and worn from pain, Momma would cry at night. I was helping her with her housework at that time, and, finding wadded tissues scattered around her bed, I’d say to myself, “Momma, don’t cry, don’t cry.” As I straightened her blankets and smoothed her embroidered, lace-edged sheets, the tears I never allowed her to see would drip from my cheeks.

During Momma’s long, wakeful nights, the little house finch kept her company. When I’d come over, I’d find it in her bed, resting among her pillows. She told me she loved to hold it close and press its little button, just to hear it sing the wild, free song she so loved. She played it night after night and month after month until it stopped playing altogether. During Momma’s last days, it sat on her bedside table beside her prayer books. I bless the day I happened upon that little bird – the small house finch that tempered her nights with the beauty of its song.

Which brings me back to those first, tear-spattered days after Momma died. Ten days after she was buried, I was in my bedroom, dressing after a shower. As I sat down on the bed to pull on a pair of socks, I dropped my hands in my lap and felt adrift on a bleak, unknown sea. Silence and emptiness washed over me, and I was capsized by a sudden wave of unreality and disbelief. Surely, this must be some kind of bad dream. I wanted to wake up, to shake away the loneliness. Submerged beneath leagues of loss and sorrow, I felt this heaviness might just crush me. I said aloud to her, as I have always firmly believed that those who no longer live can, somehow, hear us, “Oh, Momma, is this real?”

At the precise moment these words left my lips, something wonderful happened: an unexpected postcard arrived after all. Directly outside my window, sweet and clear, like sunlight refracting through raindrops, a house finch began to sing. I couldn’t believe it. What were the odds? A million to one? I had never heard a house finch’s song from our bedroom before, nor have I since. Nor had I ever heard a house finch sing in winter, in deeply frozen February. In that moment of heaven-sent synchronicity, I understood that while she cannot be with me temporally, Momma is with me spiritually, somewhere just outside of time, yet, somehow, closer than the beating of my heart. No need to search for her a moment longer. She is here with me – always.

In birdsong, in blossoms, in the patter of the rain and the sigh of the wind, in sunlight and in moonbeams, in the changing seasons, in the things she loved, and in love itself, bright and eternal, she lives on.

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A valentine heart Momma designed, cross-stitched and crocheted for me in 1979 hangs in the branches of the magnolia tree in front of her home.