April’s midpoint

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I was in Denver a few days ago, and flew out just after their latest bomb cyclone storm had gone through.  I had joined my sisters and sister-in-law, to be with our brother for heart surgery.  This, after his year-long hospitalization for treatment of leukemia and a bone marrow transplant from my sister.  He’s the only one left alive of the 26 patients in the clinical trial.  Between meetings with the surgeons, and the never-ending weather channel news about the bomb cyclone on its way, it felt like a high-wire act.

On the day of surgery,  the blizzard was scheduled to hit between 1 and 3 pm.  Schools had early outs, the government shut down, and we were told to STAY OFF THE ROADS.  But, off we drove to the sprawling university hospital campus, at the intersection of several interstates, to keep our vigil.   At 12:30 p.m., the team of surgeons called for us to come to a private conference room, which was hours before they said the operation would be over.   Fearing the worst, we four stared out the windows, watched the wind and snow begin, and fought back tears with all our might.  To our great surprise and enormous relief, the team of doctors came into the room and told us that the operation was textbook perfect, our brother had sailed through with flying colors, and we could see him in intensive care within the hour.  Tears and hugs all around, and when we went to the cafeteria for a bowl of hot soup, we were shaking so badly that our spoons barely made it to our mouths.   There are monitors all around the cafeteria, color coded to find your loved one.  We kept watching his number, still in the green zone–surgery–and then it turned blue for recovery, and off we went to the elevators to see him.

Donning gowns and gloves, we found him alert and happy to be alive, and we hugged and kissed amidst all the cords and wires and beeping monitors of a cardiac intensive care unit.  We sat on the fold-out sofa and breathed in oxygen for the first time in hours.  It was after 3:00, and when we looked out the windows and saw the blizzard was in full force, we knew it was time to immediately leave, or we’d be spending the night with him and our sister-in-law.   The trip home to my sister’s house had its own drama.  She needed her insulin which she’d left back at the house.  The road was jam-packed with cars off in the median, flashing emergency vehicle lights blurred in the white-out, and we needed a gas station as we’d been running on fumes forever.  I could see the headlines:  “Three elderly sisters–one in diabetic coma– run out of gas on interstate in bomb cyclone”.  But, we found gas and made it home, including a stop at the liquor store, which turned out to be our dinner that night.  We couldn’t get off the couch to make anything to eat, and just watched funny TV shows until we collapsed into bed.

The clouds were stunning, all the way to home.  It felt like I’d been gone a long time, and even though I know that nothing changes by mid-April, I was still surprised that nothing had changed.  Away but a few days, it was easy to imagine that the temperatures had risen into the 60’s, the snow piles were gone, and summer felt just around the corner.  Convinced that this April is colder than past years,  I went back through my blog posts and found evidence that it is always like this.  The dirty snow piles, the clouds, the rain and cold, are always here mid-April.  We become delusional around the mid-point of April.  Patience runs thin and gloom hangs just beneath the rain clouds.   I’m tired of the world’s bad news.   None of my soup recipes sound good anymore and I can’t remember how to cook anything else.

When I went to the grocery store, the young clerk told me she really likes the gloomy days, and that sunny days make her anxious.  Sunny days make her feel like she has to do something, but on dreary days, if she doesn’t want to do anything, it’s perfectly acceptable.  She does have a point.  Why not just conserve energy for the wildly energetic long summer days out there in the future.  And, turns out, I need a bit of rest anyway.

“The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.”
–  Robert Frost, Two Tramps in Mud Time 


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“The first wild-flower of the year is like land after sea.” –Thomas Wentworth Higginson in April Days.

“We have violets!” Rita texted me yesterday morning.  When I asked “where?!”, she sent me a detailed map of how to find the alley in which she had discovered them, so I could go see for myself.  “The flowers of late winter and early spring occupy places in our hearts well out of proportion to their size.  “ (Gertrude S. Wister).  That’s most certainly true.  But, I don’t know which gave me more joy–that violets have appeared, or that Rita and I are in this together.

I had two long back-to-back days in town this week, and by the time I got home to the lake, I was almost out of oxygen.  I couldn’t wait to get out on the porch–now we’ve moved to the main porch since the sun has traveled north behind the big Ponderosa off our bedroom.  I’m still in a parka and a wool blanket wrapped around me, as the sun is filtered by clouds, but it fills me back up to hear lapping waves and watch waterfowl skim over the water.  Any day, I’ll hear the loons.  Yesterday afternoon, at last, Johnson’s pond was clear of ice, and the pair of Canada geese who stand way too close to the highway, can make their nest at water’s edge.  The final piles of snow have melted off our roof, and a narrow path of grass has revealed itself down to the dock.  March went out like a lamb, covering us in sunshine, but leaving us behind in moisture.  So, it’s good news that cool weather and rain is in the forecast for as far out as we can see.  I can get back to my spring cleaning projects inside the house, and read a book by the fire.  Overcome by spring green right now, I decided I needed to paint the bottom half of my red kitchen cabinets in “pea green”, which means that Don has slaved away all week, meticulously painting them, and struggling with the challenging Farrow and Ball paint I love so much.  He can’t wait to get out of the house.

T.S. Eliot wrote in The Wasteland that “April is the cruelest month”, and it often feels just like that when it seems it will never ever be warm again.   But, there is the occasional day when it feels like we should just “go make the call”, as Stuart Kestenbaum writes in his poem, April Prayer.

Just before the green begins there is the hint of green
a blush of color, and the red buds thicken
the ends of the maple’s branches and everything
is poised before the start of a new world,
which is really the same world
just moving forward from bud
to flower to blossom to fruit
to harvest to sweet sleep, and the roots
await the next signal, every signal
every call a miracle and the switchboard
is lighting up and the operators are
standing by in the pledge drive we’ve
all been listening to: Go make the call.


Open water

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We are coming to the end of March and things are slowly changing.   The picnic table had two feet of snow all winter long.  There is still a foot of snow covering the yard, and walking down to the lake is best done with hiking poles, but look at that open water.  It happened earlier this week.  We were sitting on our sheltered porch, back when there was bright sunshine, and suddenly a narrow channel of water appeared before us.  A strong wind from the south began blowing up the lake and we watched waves fold over the ice, breaking it up, and ice floes began to form and then separate, and flow northward.  Chunks rattled and clacked against the rocks on the shoreline, and great white shapes formed and reformed out in the lake.  Just as it took exactly the right temperature and the right direction of the wind to flash-freeze the lake, the same conditions had to come into alignment to set it free.  And, I got to witness both remarkable events, from the porch of my very own house.  It feels really profound to me–otherworldly somehow–and I’ll think about why that is so in the weeks ahead.  But, my guess is, this it what I will always remember about winter 2019.

Now, the mud season is upon us, and it is ugly.  Cars are lined up at the car washes, as we pay five bucks for five miles of clean driving.  Everybody in Montana has that line of dirt on their pant leg, down at the calf, from stepping out of a car coated in mud.  It’s open burning season, and the highways are covered with dirt from a winter of sanding, so a layer of brown haze hovers over the fields.  I feel like I am Pig-Pen, the Peanuts cartoon character, who walked with a cloud of dirt behind him.  Yet, there are wonderful sights to see.  The Canada geese are hunkered down in fields which are clear of snow, and as they move about in the stubble, often all you see are their black curved necks rising up out of the ground.  Our very own pair are sitting on Johnson’s frozen pond, waiting for it to open up.  Great flocks of tundra swans are flying overhead, dazzlingly white, making their haunting call.  The seagulls have returned, and so many bird songs fill the air in the new light of morning.

We’re having freezing fog this morning, and a cold front is on its way with night-time temperatures dipping back below 32 degrees for a while.  Our rainy season is coming–we hope not too soon, as we need the snowpack to stay up in the mountains for as long as possible.  There is nothing quite so cold as a 40 degree soaking rain in springtime.  When Don takes the outdoor Christmas trees to his slash pile, he’ll need to fill the wheelbarrow with more firewood for the front porch.  Still, someday very soon, after a few sunshine filled afternoons, I’ll get reports from Rita of snowdrops and buttercup sightings.  When the snow finally melts on the terrace, tiny purple violets will suddenly appear out of nowhere between the stones.  Our spring is really just a “handful of separate moments and single afternoons”, but sometimes, on the good days, it feels like enough anyway.

“Poets and songwriters speak highly of spring as one of the great joys of life in the temperate zone, but in the real world most of spring is disappointing.  We looked forward to it too long, and the spring we had in mind in February was warmer and dryer than the actual spring when it finally arrives. We’d expected it to be a whole season, like winter, instead of a handful of separate moments and single afternoons.”
–  Barbara Holland, Endangered Pleasures


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Don got home, the cat came back, and we just passed the mid-point between the Winter and Summer Solstices.  There’s been a week of bright sunshine and brilliant moonshine, and the first of spring rains is forecasted for this week-end.  I’ve been sitting on the porch off our bedroom, for my 5:00 cocktail hour with the kitties, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, and having “solar therapy”, as our local public radio calls it.  I am convinced that I’ve actually seen the sun move north in the past four days, as it went behind a ponderosa branch yesterday, and brought a chill to the air at 6pm, which wasn’t there the day before.  The lake is eerily still frozen solid and the shrill of tundra swans over on the river broadcasts across the ice to us.  We saw three deer far out there a few days ago–a suicide walk to be sure.  For, surely, the ice must break up soon?

I’ve been re-reading Henry Beston’s book, The Northern Farm, about life at a Maine homestead in the early 1930’s.  About the coming of spring, he writes:

“If the opening music of the northern year begins with a first trumpet call of the return of light, and the return of warmth is the second great flourish from the air, the unsealing of the waters of earth is certainly the third.”

Now that the light has returned and remains in the sky until well after 8 p.m, and the porch, tucked away from the wind off our bedroom, is warm enough to sit on by 5 p.m., if the sun is shining, I am growing anxious for the unsealing of the lake.  I’m longing to hear its waves and ripples and lapping at the shoreline, to watch the dance of light on its surface, to smell it back to life.   Closing my eyes out there in the warm late afternoon sunshine, I imagine the sound of a fishing boat out on the water, or the distinctive sound of a paddle boarder floating by off the dock.  Alas, I am getting WAY ahead of myself!  With two feet of snow still on the ground, and a return to seasonal cold temperatures, we are a long way away from those halcyon days.  It will be far better for me to appreciate the crystalline fog which hangs low over the snow-covered fields in the mornings, and the hoar-frost on trees next to the open river, and the way the buds are enlarging on the populus tremuloides, those aspens with the yellow-green leaves which will quake in early summer breezes off the big lakeside porch.  And, the robins perched on top fences which are just beginning to emerge up out of the snow, and the shape of icicle swords which hang from the roof, the little birds which merrily belt out their tunes from the tops of trees, and the way ground is emerging underneath the bushes, and alongside the highways.  The lesson of this season is surely Patience.

 “Adopt the secret of nature; her secret is patience.”  –Ralph Waldo Emerson


Comings and goings

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I have come back to home.  The lake is still frozen solid, and while the snow depth looks unchanged, water is pouring off the roof in the afternoon sunshine with above freezing temperatures.  Tall berms of dirty snow narrow the roads and block the intersections, but the pavement is mercifully dry.  I heard new bird songs on my morning walk, and with the spring equinox a mere three days away, there is now hope in the air.  The moon will become full–a supermoon, no less–on the equinox, an occurrence which only happens three times a century.  Already, in the middle of the night, it looked like spotlights were suddenly beaming down from the sky, illuminating the world of white snow and white ice which surround my house.   We have turned the corner now–you can clearly sense it.

I feel like I was gone a long time, though it was shy of two weeks.  The Arizona desert was just coming into bloom, and Carol and I hiked through fields of poppies and up to grand vistas of the brilliant blue sky.  We eat great food, shopped, and talked endlessly, as good girlfriends do together.  In Berkeley, there were many days in which I walked Eamon home from school and the clear air was filled with spring scents and happy birds.  As my youngest grandchild, he is the only one left who stops to smell and touch the flowers, and ask me their names.  I know how fleeting and precious this time is, after witnessing how quickly my other five grandchildren have blossomed into their own lives and their private spaces, as is the natural order of things.

With Don still in Norway, and one kitty missing, it’s a bit lonely here.  But, it always feels like a relief to come home, to settle back down into my homeplace, after fluttering my wings out there in the world.  The grandfather clock’s ticking and chimes seem to bring my heart back into a softer rhythm, and I have my own private space after time away, to come home to myself again, and see what’s new there.

                                       May you travel in an awakened way,
                                       Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
                                       That you may not waste the invitations
                                       Which wait along the way to transform you.
                                       May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
                                       And live your time away to its fullest;
                                       Return home more enriched, and free
                                       To balance the gift of days which call you.
                                       —John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us




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“What else can we say but it is really cold for early March; record levels.”  NOAA forecast discussion 3.04.19.

It was -18 when light began to fill the sky this morning.  I stepped outside to watch the lake fog roll in over the snow, and I could hear the ice floes tinkling and clacking against each other at the shoreline.  Two bald eagles, who’ve been nesting nearby, flew low over my head with their enormous wingspans.  I thought “And the raven quote, nevermore” and quickly returned indoors.  An hour or so later, as the bright sun burned off the fog, I looked out the windows and saw a sea of white–the lake had frozen over for as far as I could see.  I have never seen this before.  Flathead Lake freezes over about one in every ten years, but it’s never happened in the twenty-three years I’ve lived here.  And, it appeared to just flash-freeze–I heard water moving, and a few hours later, it was ice.  I trudged down to the lake in thigh-high snow with snow shoes, and felt such a bitter cold eerie calm.  The trees were coated in hoarfrost and I could see deer tracks down to where there had just been water.  What else can we say, indeed–it is really cold.

I saw tracks in the snow which lead from our terrace off into the woods.  The injured deer has found it much easier to eat the branches of the trees up at the picnic tables, rather than those buried in deep snow.  I see him out the kitchen window, hopping on his three good legs.  He’s eating, there’s no blood, and he looks healthy enough, but it is painful for me to watch him leave the house, and make his way through snow which reaches his underbelly.  It almost looks like he is swimming, and then he disappears into the woods at twilight.

Don is gone and I’m soon to leave, abandoning the house to the cold.  There are lots of things to do in preparation–check the thermostats, close the flue, open cabinet doors to the pipes, put jumper cables in the car, unplug the garage space heater and dehumidifier, stop the mail, take the garbage to the dump.  Then, there is nothing left to do but leave it all behind, and believe that this brutal winter–a terrible beauty–as they say about Ireland, will have released its hold over us by the time I return, and let us ease into spring.

“By March, the worst of the winter would be over. The snow would thaw, the rivers begin to run and the world would wake into itself again.  Not that year. Winter hung in there, like an invalid refusing to die. Day after grey day the ice stayed hard; the world remained unfriendly and cold.”
Neil Gaiman, Odd and the Frost Giants

Waiting for winter’s end

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“Winter collapsed on us that year.  It knelt, exhausted, and stayed.”  Emily Fridlund, History of Wolves.

“This cold outbreak of well below normal temperatures will continue through at least Wednesday of next week, where overnight lows will be in the single digits to below zero every day in western Montana… There are no signs of an early spring, as longer range models are indicating below normal temperatures persisting through the middle of March.”  NOAA weather forecast 2.27.19

“Friday afternoon and Saturday brings yet another arctic into western Montana and central Idaho. Model agreement is very good and depicts this as the coldest air mass yet this winter to move into the regions. Which is ironic since it will arrive in March which is the beginning of meteorological Spring.”  NOAA weather forecast 2.28.19

The final day of February and the cold is unrelenting.  In the deep dark of night, the house wakes us up with the cracking and groaning sound of winter, as the timbers contract and twist, or whatever they do to make that noise.  The snow falls straight down out my window this morning, making ever deeper piles of snow, which are closing in around the house.  It feels like we could all collapse under its weight.  The poor deer.  Every evening at twilight, they trudge down to the water in blue light, and dig under the deep snow for leaves and branches.   I’ll look out the window to see a bush violently swinging back and forth, as a deer digs deep into the ground, searching for roots.  It makes them look desperately hungry, which surely they are, as snow covers their backs in the bitter cold.  Don said that he’s seen one, several times, with a damaged back leg, most likely broken.  But, he’s eating, and maybe he’ll survive until spring, but would never be able to flee from a predator.  Oh, I hope I don’t see him.   I  wonder if somewhere in their DNA, they actually carry hope for Spring.  Does that keep their life force alive, perhaps the memory of bedding down in grass warmed by the sun, the scent of blossoms in the air, and songbirds in a tree overhead?  Or, is it simply that they know how to wait, as Philip Booth writes in his poem, How to See Deer, “You’ve learned by now to wait without waiting”.

How to See Deer, by Philip Booth

Forget roadside crossings.
Go nowhere with guns.
Go elsewhere your own way,

lonely and wanting. Or
stay and be early:
next to deep woods

inhabit old orchards.
All clearings promise.
Sunrise is good,

and fog before sun.
Expect nothing always;
find your luck slowly.

Wait out the windfall.
Take your good time
to learn to read ferns;

make like a turtle:
downhill toward slow water.
Instructed by heron,

drink the pure silence.
Be compassed by wind.
If you quiver like aspen

trust your quick nature:
let your ear teach you
which way to listen.

You’ve come to assume
protective color; now
colors reform to

new shapes in your eye.
You’ve learned by now
to wait without waiting;

as if it were dusk
look into light falling:
in deep relief

things even out. Be
careless of nothing. See
what you see. 


On Monday, during the coldest Arctic air mass yet this winter, Don drives to Calgary to catch a flight to Norway, for two weeks of ski racing.  I’ll leave soon after, flying off to Arizona to visit a friend, then on to Berkeley for a week with the grandkids.  Just getting out of here is a challenge–is our road passable, are the flights taking off, are the two-lane highways all the way to Canada open?  Raccoon tracks have been spotted up at the garage again, so the bowls of food and water we leave for the kitties, who stay warm inside on their heating pads, are likely to be decimated by the pesky raccoon who squeezes in through the cat door.   We can’t ask any friends to risk their life or limb by driving down our road to refill the bowls–maybe our snow plow man will be game?

By the time we’ve returned home, Daylight Savings Time will have occurred.  It will still be cold and snow will not have melted, but we will have gained another hour of daylight at the end of the day.  I don’t even know that I am happy about that.  Mornings will be darker again, and that extra hour of daylight closes down the best part of February–the winter twilight.  When the sky turns blue, we cross over a quiet threshold, into the night.  I start a fire and light the candles, and settle into a chair with my book and a glass of wine, and watch out my window.   Like sunsets from the dock in mid-summer, there is something magical in witnessing a day come to its end.   We are always delusional about March, thinking there will be green shoots suddenly popping up in the ground, and warm sun on our backs as we sit by the water.  We just want to get moving, get things done, but there comes a revising down of expectations as the  weather has hardly moved off winter’s mark, despite ever-increasing daylight.  Don’t get me wrong–I love the tiny little surprises of hope that reveal themselves in March–in fact, I’ve already heard the male red-winged blackbird.  But, I would be remiss to not bid a fond farewell to these winter nights, so beautifully described by the author of the book that I’m currently reading by my fire:

“…the book had been written with winter nights in mind. Without a doubt, it was a book for when the birds had flown south, the wood was stacked by the fireplace, and the fields were white with snow; that is, for when one had no desire to venture out and one’s friends had no desire to venture in.”
Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow