Yesterday, I was surprised by how big he was, and how, from a distance, he looked sleek and strong. But then he came closer, making circles around our house to keep arriving at the compost bin. From that distance, I could see he was limping, his fur was mangy, and he looked old, sick, and hungry.
Coyotes are obviously predators, and we’ve lost Pinky Velvet, Judy Actionia, and Sidney Iowa — three beloved kitties — to coyotes over the last decade, plus more cats before then. It’s an occupational hazard to country living. Yes, coyotes have to eat, but they’ve broken our hearts many a time, so much so that I’ve thought of them more often as our enemy.
“Even a monster has a story,” said Joy Harjo, doing a live-streamed reading last night through K.U., Haskell Indian Nations University, Humanities Kansas, and the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. Over 1,100 of us living from living rooms or cars all over Kansas and the country may have gasped at that line, especially in a time of such monsters roaming the earth (one even, tragically, invading the Ukraine right now). While I don’t mean to equate a limping coyote to human monsters, who are so much more tragically capable of mass destruction and generational trauma, I am wondering about this coyote’s story.
I’m not wondering what the coyote is doing here though: he’s obviously trying to survive like any of us would, and our compost pile, if and when he can snag rotting potatoes or old bread from it, is likely just the ticket. He also knows humans are right here, and whenever I go window to window to look at him, he pauses, stares directly at me, and waits. Then he heads down the drive, turns left and climbs with difficulty through the sloping woods to come back to the compost.
I’m rooting for his survival, and I’m holding my cat tight, taking extra care to keep her from shooting out the door when we refill the bird feeders. I’m also watching the sheer coyote-ness of him through the falling snow as he tries against the odds to snag more time out of this life.
We are living in a world of rain lately, and according to the weather forecast, this is life as we know it into the foreseeable process. It started a week or maybe months ago, yet it’s also not monolithic. Spots of blue sky, small and angular at times, open up in between the humidity and the deluge. Almost-sun almost shows itself, then any hope fades of that big glaring star coming into view.
Meanwhile, the birds. Meanwhile, the flowers. It’s raining for long stretches and the ground is beyond soggy. A small waterfall has opened up across the slope above our driveway through the gravel to the lower fields. It’s hard to take a step anywhere without sinking. The irises can’t stand up anymore under all this water, sherbet-colored ones collapsing on the purple and yellow ones.
The birds, on the other hand, keep at it, a bouquet of color and motion from the cottonwood to feeder to walnut to ground. A pair of blue grosbeaks. An energetic red-bellied woodpecker hanging with his claws off the edge of the feeder. Two downy woodpeckers head-banging each other in the tree before going back to the feeder. A happy pair of goldfinch. Even a rose-breasted grosbeak for a day or two.
I step outside, onto the relatively not-soggy deck, leaning back under the eaves, a camera hiding in my shirt to keep it from getting wet. Or I step out without a camera and lift my arms to the rain, feeling the drops on my face, knowing I will have to clean off my glasses again once inside. Or I step barefoot onto the wet wood in the dark, the curtain of rain parted for a few minutes, and look out, wondering when I’ll see stars again.
But come morning, the birds again and again, their color more vividly saturated in the blur of air and water, their time right here. It’s more than enough.
As I watch the Pendleton’s peonies I just bought rush from tight little balls to full-throttle fireworks of blossoms, I keep thinking of three impossible things: the massive tornado that tunneled through our area last May 28th, my eye cancer diagnosis right before the tornado, and the pandemic that ups the ante on anxiety and the longing to live . In short, it’s been a helluva year. In long form, there’s a lot to say about how all three events can grow into greater resilience, courage, community, and imagination in a hurry.
When I went to the Pendleton’s farm last Memorial Day, I was their last customer of the day. I bought some asparagus (which they’re deservedly famous for) and plants for the vegetable garden, but mostly peonies. Poet Mary Oliver describes this explosion of a flower as unabashedly mortal with “their lush trembling,/ their eagerness/ to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are/ nothing, forever?” I was reeling from my diagnosis through a maze of scans and tests toward what would be very painful surgery to insert radiative pellets in my eye, then remove them, and I knew the bold and brave peony was what I needed on my night table.
I spoke with John and Karen Pendleton that afternoon about the times they had to rebuild (such as when a microburst wiped out their farm) and the long hours and slim margins of the farming life. We also covered the care and feeding of the peonies, heavy balls on the ends of long sticks Karen fetched from the refrigerator for me to take home, plop in a vase, and voila! Magic happens. But only because the Pendletons, like so many local farmers, stick it out and put in the time.
The next day, the afternoon air was so weighted in humidity and danger that it was hard to think straight or breathe freely. Then the sirens started in earnest and didn’t stop for over an hour. I ran up and down the stairs to the basement many times, urging Ken to come join me in a protective underground space while he insisted he could stay outside a little longer watching the huge wall of rain approach. The only problem was that this wall held a rain-wrapped tornado (or more accurately, a bevy of tornadoes snaking together and apart), making it impossible to see what funnels of destruction were heading our way. Our son on the phone, tracking Kansas radar from his Wisconsin apartment, assured us whatever was coming was coming straight for us.
The last time we experienced this was shortly after I completed chemo 17 years earlier to poison-cleanse all the breast cancer out of me. I remember, when Ken asked what I wanted to save, just shrugging and suggesting the animals, kids, and photo albums. That tornado lifted back up and didn’t touch us. This time I was angry, yelling at the sky, “Really?” along with a bunch of curse words.
The tornado just missed us, downing and twisting trees a tenth of a mile north. But it grew larger and stronger as it drove northeast, overtaking the Pendleton Farm. While they were safe in their basement, the home and farm they climbed upstairs to was devastated, and they were faced with the decision of whether and how to rebuild, not to mention a massive mess. People came out of the woodwork for them and for our other neighbors who lost roofs, windows, whole houses, and certainly a sense of safety in the world.
Since then, I’ve finished my cancer treatment, and although I’m mostly blind in what I call my magic eye, I’m okay….for now. But that’s how it always is with life and certainly how it is with the pandemic for many of us. But oh, so many losses for so many this year, the kind you can’t rebuild or just use your other eye to mitigate. There’s also the overwhelming economic and economic security losses (how high can you count?), the fear and dread of how to stay safe in this long interim between pandemic and remedy or vaccine, and so much we took for granted no longer part and parcel of routine life.
But there’s also these peonies, this year’s bouquet I bought from the Pendletons now that they’re rebuilt and rebuilding. There’s this world full of tight communities coming together to help and support their members. There’s this human tendency to start over, exhausted and heartbroken, and make something good or good enough out of brokenness.
“Do you love this world?” Mary Oliver asks in her poem, “Peonies.” Yes, I do, so much, especially now when the tender beauty and intoxicating scent of a flower is surprisingly strong enough to hold me, even with the possibilities of wild weather in this body and across this land and nation. I wonder what next year’s peonies will tell us.
Each day I crave a clear view of a clear sky, but fog, snow, sleet, rain, freezing rain, and variety packs of all this percipitation at once fills the well-hidden vistas. Narrower perspectives of what’s out there push me inside and inward to what’s in here. My technicolor dreams, on the other hand, go go big screen and high speed, involving shadow cities of places I thought I knew and a conveyor belt of swiftly-changing characters, many of whom I don’t know. Then again, I’m also sleeping more, giving those dreams extra room to get wild.
Like many of us, this is the time of year I drink a lot of hot tea, craving little butter cookies to dunk in that tea, and at night, hunker down under blankets and heater cats (real cats, real warmth) surrounded by a herd of animals, now including two dogs, two kitties, and one husband. I’m more aware than usual of the air, sometimes too cold or too dry, and right now, composed of clouds too close to the ground. Last night, I dreamed I looked out a high window that doesn’t actually exist on the imaginary third or fourth story of my house to see the ground, faded into brownish green with small patches of snow, then when I looked again, greening up like it will do in a few months. I looked away and saw a blossoming tree, something like a magnolia, but when I woke into darkness and chill, such a tree seemed preposterous.
Because the scene is so monochromatic, I’m drawn more to black and white movies, last night Mr Deeds Goes to Town, which also has plenty of foggy, soft-edges scenes that even lower the volume of New York City 1930’s lights and action to a whisper. I’m hugging the edge of home more too, forgoing leaving the house with its heart-rushing foray down a drive composed of layered snow, frozen rain, sleet, and more rain. Instead, I bake or ignore the urge to bake, plan sewing projects, talk with friends on the phone, and make a whole lot of soup.
But that’s all for the good because in the cave of winter we’re meant to do some hibernation. Although it doesn’t feel like it, spring will come soon enough with its fast-moving flowers. Now is the time is quiet down and listen to the space between not enough and too much. That’s more than enough.
Daylight Savings Time, beside being a kick that keeps kicking our sleeping patterns for a while, heralds a kind of lightening up, particularly if, like me, you’re not an early riser. For those of us sleep-until-it’s-been-light-for-awhile slackers, the time shift surprises us with more light at the end of the day, but I also experience this time of the year as a weight off my shoulders. Winter, which took up big-living residence in the house of time this year, is showing signs of packing some of her bags. Crocus, tinier than usual because of the cold, are unfurling. Birdsong sweetens its tune each morning. The temperature is playing tennis in the 40s, even the 50s, and dare we say the low 60s too. Sometime in the near future, there will be magnolia blooming, and then within a month, lilac.
I’m also experiencing a lightening up in my life. For the first time ever, spring break has no relevance to our lives. Daniel, who is finishing up grad school, isn’t coming home this time because of thesis-writing and internship-working. No one else is bursting through the front door with backpacks, suitcases, and leftover six-packs of craft beer either. We’re not packing or unpacking from a spring break trip either.
Mostly, though, my work is lightening up, and by that, I don’t mean the time involved but the weight of the work. I’ve realized that work hours weight variable amounts, some light and airy like beach balls, and others heavy and dense like medicine balls. Still on leaving from teaching, I’m juggling more beach balls: leading more workshops and retreats, writing a short-ish grant, planning new writing and consulting adventures, and, as one friend wished for me, finding my wings. Achieving lift-off necessitates shedding what’s no longer needed, then leaning into the thermals — the best winds that will give me lift-off — and letting go.
Today, I go for a long walk with Anne and Shay the dog. Then an open evening, and perhaps time to draw more birds as I teach myself more about playing with colored pencils and really seeing the contours and colors of what else takes flight. The sun is leaning hard against the clouds and may soon break through, reminding me that yes, little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter, but now there’s something lighter — in temperature, weight, and sunlight — coming.
So even if this morning required twice as much coffee or longer stretches of sleeping in for you, I wish you a daylight savings time that truly helps you discover more shining daylight in your life and more saving graces in your time.