A New Year

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We are home to start the New Year.  Cormac, 10 years old, sent me a text from California last night, “We r missing u here!!!!”, including the emoji of a face crying copious tears.  Yep–as always, as good as it is to be snuggled back into our cozy, quiet home, we r missing u too, very much.  Scant snow fell while we were gone, but it’s bitter cold here this morning.  The winter stars were brilliant, with the waning crescent moon lighting up the trees in the east.  The kitties got to come in for a little fireside visit last night, but Chatpeau is happily asleep out on the porch, curled into the wool throw on the Adirondack chair.  We get ready for Winter, and a new year.

Every New Year’s Eve, I think about possible resolutions or intentions, and contemplate the enormity of the blank slate of a brand new year.  There was that one year I wrote down five things about myself that I wanted to purge, and wrote each of them on a little piece of rice paper, and then burned them one by one in the fireplace.  I can’t remember what they were, so I don’t know if I was purged.  I was reading earlier this morning about traditions around the world, and after I learned how in Japan, at midnight, temple bells ring 108 times, matching the need to be purified before the New Year, I felt exhausted before this day even got underway.

So, I don’t know…it’s still early and morning alpine glow has turned the snow on Blacktail Mountain, across the lake, a lovely shade of pink.  I can see lights now over there, as people begin to wake up and start their final day of another year.  The lake is quiet, a lovely shade of baby blue/ pale lavender, and a dozen or so ducks just paddled by close to shore, going south.  Before he left to ski, Don made his famous green chili, so the warm house is filled with New Mexican memories of kiva fireplaces, farolitos on adobe rooftops, and the smell of piñon pine.  I could take down the Christmas tree, but it is so enchanting come dusk, as l’heure bleue spreads that beautiful shade of winter blue behind the reds and golds which glitter on the Grand Fir tree.

The ducks are now floating back up this way, so, perhaps, it’s time to get a move on.  Maybe, I’ll just start with breakfast, over a few more good poems, and go from there, on this final day, before the new year gets underway.

Starlings in Winter, by Mary Oliver
Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly
they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,
dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine
how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,
this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

The Solstice and the Tomtens

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The Winter Solstice has arrived, and the full Long Night Moon was enormous as it slid down into the lake this morning–there will be a glow in the sky on this longest of nights.  The wind is raging out there, the wind chime is furiously gonging, and the outdoor Christmas trees are wiggling to and fro.  There’s no snow.  The Solstice is always cold, dark and still, and incredibly quiet, but all feels in disarray as we begin this day.  It’s one of those times in which the ancients would have seen this as an omen, a message from the gods, a long dark night full of foreboding.

We’ll go on our annual solstice walk, out to the head of the lake, at sunset, which we won’t be able to see today.   It’s been our tradition for so many years now, sometimes with visiting family or friends.  It has come to be an important ritual for me, to stop and be present for one of life’s thresholds, in which the sun stands still for a moment, as low in the sky as it will be, and then begins its slow climb back up, promising light and warmth to future days.  It’s a closing, and an opening, in the same moment– an uneasy ambivalence that must have informed the ancient rituals of building bonfires, singing and dancing for the sun’s return, and using the darkness as a reckoning to cleanse one’s past.  In his poem, Sweet Darkness, David Whyte says, “Time to go into the dark where the night has eyes to recognize its own…The night will give you a horizon further than you can see.”  And, it’s “the place of caught breath…“, writes Margaret Atwood:

“…This is the solstice, the still point of the sun, its cusp and midnight, the year’s threshold and unlocking, where the past lets go of and becomes the future; the place of caught breath, the door of a vanished house left ajar…”

On my winter mantle, there’s a framed print– a page from an old Scandinavian book of fairy tales–which I got at a flea market years ago.  The caption is likely Swedish, and the painted illustration depicts a tiny troll-like figure, trudging through the snow in darkness with a pack on his back, and there’s a small cottage, yellow lamp-light in the window, with smoke coming up the chimney.  It absolutely enchanted me, living as I do in dark long winters.  In the Arctic Circle countries, this gremlin/elfin creature is called a Tomten, and he has never been seen by humans, but comes in the dark to the barn, and cares for the animals, during the long cold winters.  I think all ancient cultures have some sort of wee folk as magical totems–at our house, we have this little elfin creature who guards the dark living room, after we’ve gone to bed.  When I researched the origin of  Tomtens, it seems to have come from a long ago poem by Viktor Rydberg, and there’s a lovely illustrated book by Ingrid Lindgren, still in print, which translates this ancient poem into a prose story of darkness and hope.  In the original poem, the dark night is full of fear and existential loneliness, but it is juxtaposed with winter’s beauty, and, a solitary Tomten–who we cannot see–bringing light, kindness, hope.  The Winter Solstice.


…Still is the forest and all the land,
Locked in this wintry year.
Only the distant waterfall
Whispers and sighs in his ear.
The tomte listens and, half in dream,
Thinks that he hears Time’s endless stream,
And wonders, where is it bound?
Where is its source to be found?

Deep in the grip of the midwinter cold,
The stars glitter and sparkle.
All are asleep on this lonely farm,
Late in this winter night.
The pale white moon is a wanderer,
snow gleams white on pine and fir,
snow gleams white on the roofs.
Only tomten is awake.

From Tomten, by Viktor Rydberg

Wild Ice

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There’s this interesting interlude in our weather, from mid-November to mid-December, in which the temperatures are low enough to make ice on the ponds and lakes, but before the snow arrives to cover it up.  Once, back in 2004, a few years after we had moved to the lake, a group of outdoor enthusiasts called to say that Birch Lake, in nearby Jewel Basin and a few miles up the trail, had amazing ice.  Don and I grabbed our skates and hiked up to join the families who were skating on ice which was so smooth and so clear, that when you glided across the pond, you could see schools of fish swimming below your feet.  I remember laughing out loud.  Then, suddenly, the ice began to break at the edges of the lake and  you could feel the whole pond begin to move, and there was this loud sucking noise, like when you pull the plug in a bathtub.  Everybody skated as fast as they could toward shore, and I remember just running off the lake, then running on the ground for a long time, knowing I was ruining the edges of my hockey skates.  None of us had any idea what had happened, as we watched a two-foot wave of water slosh up the sides of the lake and wash back over the ice.  Later, we learned that a 7.9 earthquake had occurred in Alaska, at the same time we were skating, and there was an article about it in the local paper afterwards.  We still talk about it this time of the year.

We have this little pond on a neighbor’s property, a brief walk from our house.  You follow the deer path, cross the neighbor’s driveway, up a short knoll through the trees, and there’s the pond.  The neighbors are not here in the winter, but Don called them in San Diego to get permission, and they just asked him to please not fall in.  It was A Wonderful Life Christmas last year, when the grandkids were all here, and they sledded down our long, steep, and winding snow packed road, and they skated on the little pond, which Don spent hours each day, clearing snow.  Last week-end, we had a few brief days of ice, when the temperatures went down into the teens for both day and night.  Don loved clearing the ice and skating in the afternoons.  There’s an old rusted aluminum lawn chair at the edge of the pond, and I like to sit there, watching, and listening for cracks in the ice, and smelling the trees, and looking for eagles.  The kitties followed me through the snowy woods and Gary assumed the goalie’s position while Chatpeau huddled in the underbrush, a safe distance away.

But, the days all this week have been windy with temperatures in the 40’s.  The snow in our yard is gone, and there was a clear path in the yard as we walked down to the dock this morning, to watch the Geminid meteor shower.   It was so warm that we wished we’d brought a blanket to put on the dock, so we could lie down on our backs, but, we saw over a dozen shooting stars, before our necks began to hurt.  Rain is predicted tomorrow.   The forecast next week doesn’t look much different, and people are trying to remember if we’ve ever had a Christmas without snow.  It seems that it always comes, just in the nick of time, bringing new adventures, often harrowing, of deep snow and ice-covered roads.  But, I think the transient wild ice days may have come and gone for this year.


In the warming house, children lace their skates,   
bending, choked, over their thick jackets.
A Franklin stove keeps the place so cozy
it’s hard to imagine why anyone would leave,
clumping across the frozen beach to the river.   
December’s always the same at Ware’s Cove,
the first sheer ice, black, then white
and deep until the city sends trucks of men
with wooden barriers to put up the boys’   
hockey rink. An hour of skating after school,
of trying wobbly figure-8’s, an hour
of distances moved backwards without falling,
then—twilight, the warming house steamy   
with girls pulling on boots, their chafed legs
aching. Outside, the hockey players keep   
playing, slamming the round black puck
until it’s dark, until supper. At night,
a shy girl comes to the cove with her father.
Although there isn’t music, they glide
arm in arm onto the blurred surface together,
braced like dancers. She thinks she’ll never
be so happy, for who else will find her graceful,
find her perfect, skate with her
in circles outside the emptied rink forever?






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Such sunshine and merriment this week!  We had dear friends down to the house to celebrate our anniversary with us, on a cold and starlit night.  After a clear and sunny day, it became one of those nights in which the stars shone all the way down to the horizon, were reflected in the lake, and twinkled between the branches of tall pines behind the house.  The International Space Station is back on its evening orbit over our house.  There are two Americans, two Russians, one Canadian and one German aboard, and on Wednesday, A Christmas dinner of turkey, candied yams, cranberry sauce and fruitcake, was rocketed up to the station.  So, last night, at 5:27, we stood on the dock, looked WNW, and watched them fly overhead for six minutes, as little dots of evening stars came into view around them.   We wondered if it was their sleeping cycle as they passed over, or were they looking down at this beautiful blue mother earth, witnessing her peril.

All the starlight ever produced was measured this week.  According to earthsky.org, scientists have measured, “all the starlight ever produced throughout the 13.7 billion year history of the observable universe.”  I wish they hadn’t done that–it makes it sound like there will be no more starlight.  In other news on the blog, they reported that SETI has found “no artificial emissions” from Oumuamua–that was the “interloper” spotted last year in our solar system.  They figured it was an asteroid or a comet, but considered it might also be an “alien artifact”.  Every once in a while, I’d see an article online about this strange object, which astrophysicists considered might be a light sail or solar spacecraft, constructed by?  I think this SETI discovery is probably a good thing for us all.

I’ve been reading the theoretical physicist, Alan Lightman, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine this past year, and it is always a peaceful retreat from the fraught world we live in.  Best known for the book, Einstein’s Dreams, his discussions about the nature of the universe and human consciousness slide pretty much completely beyond my understanding, but his graceful writing leaves me with a sense of wonder that what is real, is in those stars, and winter skies may be the best gift of the season.

“At some point in the future, new stars will cease being born. Slowly but surely, the stars of our universe are winking out. A day will come when the night sky will be totally black, and the day sky will be totally black as well. Solar systems will become planets orbiting dead stars. According to astrophysical calculations, in about a million billion years, plus or minus, even those dead solar systems will be disrupted from chance gravitational encounters with other stars. In about ten billion billion years, even galaxies will be disrupted, the cold spheres that were once stars flung out to coast solo through empty space.”
Alan Lightman, The Accidental Universe

BUT, in the meantime…

“Suppose that time is not a quantity but a quality, like the luminescence of the night above the trees just when a rising moon has touched the treeline. Time exists, but it cannot be measured.”
Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams


It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

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All the trees are now up.  There’s the Grand Fir in the living room, draped with multi-colored lights, and the very tall one with white lights on the entry porch, and two smaller white-lit trees on the front porch and the terrace, and the little miniature cottage in the library, and the mantle lights, the stained glass window with fairy lights in the pantry, and votive candles scattered everywhere.  Never mind, that we won’t even be here for Christmas–we are preparing for December’s dark days and nights.

Finally, we’ve had a skiff of snow.  It’s still hovering around freezing, down here at the lake, but an Arctic blast is predicted to bring overnight temperatures down into the teens.  There’s been ice on our stone steps up to the garage.  Great flocks of geese fly across the sky, in search of open water.  Winter is on our doorstep, once again.

“One must have a mind of winter…and not to think of any memory in the sound of the wind”, Wallace Stevens writes in his poem, The Snowman.  Another December quote I’ve recorded in my journal reads, “Christmas is a time you get homesick, even when you are at home.”  It’s so dark, the news out there in the world is so grim, and another year of our  life is coming to an end.  “December’s eyes grow sad”, writes Beatrice Crane in her ancient poem, December–we need “a torch to light the storm.”  Is it any wonder we close the shutters, light the candles, and fill our homes with as much merriment as we can!

DECEMBER, by Beatrice Crane
Now wildly sweeps the wind,
And wildly drives the sleet,
December fast draws nigh
Wrapped close from head to feet.
Her eyes glance restlessly
From shaken tree to plain,
The dark hair neath her head
Is wet with frozen rain.
Her funny cloak she holds
With one hand round her form,
The other one lifts high
A torch to light the storm.
Scare tree or shrub doth cheer
The dreary scene around,
Save for the moaning wind.
There is no other sound.
December’s eyes grow sad
And fainter still her tread;
One hears a long, low sigh
Which tells the year is dead.

‘Everything is waiting for you’



I have been from sea to shining sea twice in the past thirty days–October on the Atlantic Ocean, and November on the Pacific.  When we arrived home Sunday afternoon, having shared a lovely Thanksgiving week on the Oregon coast with dear friends, the bright sunshine spilled over my living room, welcoming me back.  Then, again, there could be snow drifts outside the door, and I would still love being home.  I am–we both are–homebodies by nature.  Our long-time friends who we were with in Oregon, couldn’t believe we had committed to staying so long away.  We are infamous for leaving in the middle of the night, once we have become overwhelmed by the need to be home.  Twice, we have decided to rent a place in our beloved Santa Fe, for a full month in early Spring, when winter never seems to lose its grip, back at home.  But, we’ve only made it three weeks, each time, overcome by homesickness.  Friends often remark to me, “For two people who don’t like travel, you sure travel all the time!”  Yes, we do–about a trip each month, somewhere.   Usually, it’s because I get such heartache for my family that I must go to wherever they are, and, then, there are such lovely places in the world that keep sending out their siren’s call for me to come.

But, finding home, is why I began writing this blog in the first place.  Growing up in Ohio, then living on each coast over the years, as well as cities in-between, I ended up in northwestern Montana, nearing the age of fifty, now a long twenty-three years ago.  I’ve never been the one to choose where I would live, in my whole life–which seems so strange to acknowledge.  But, maybe, it explains why once I landed in this beautiful place, over time, I put my own roots into the ground, and found home, at last, in Montana.  Not that I don’t pick up realtor brochures in every lovely town we visit, and declare, “I know I could live here”!  But, here, at the lake, is where I keep finding home.  Not a home place, as described by Wallace Stegner, in which generations of family tilled the soil and lived out their lives, but a place ‘profoundly felt, deeply loved’, nonetheless.

I wonder if ever again Americans can have that experience of returning to a home place so intimately known, profoundly felt, deeply loved, and absolutely submitted to? It is not quite true that you can’t go home again. I have done it, coming back here. But it gets less likely. We have had too many divorces, we have consumed too much transportation, we have lived too shallowly in too many places.”
Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose

Perhaps, finding home is as simple as being at one’s angle of repose, a scientific measurement of “the steepest angle at which sloping surface formed of a particular loose material is stable”.

Now, we are home for an entire month, before we are off to California to spend Christmas with the Golden State families. Today is a true November day, covered in slate gray clouds, rain and drizzle, cold, dreary, and still.  Snow can’t be too far away, but likes to wait until December.  It’s time to get the Christmas tree and decorate the house with lights and candles and fairy trees outside the windows.  These are the darkest days we ever have, and the fire is lit by 4:00, the soup simmers on the stove, and it feels like ‘everything is waiting for you’, right inside my house.

Everything is Waiting for You–by David Whyte

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.


Winter preparedness

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A Long and Gracious Fall

by David Budbill


A long and gracious fall this year.
The leaves are down. Gardens: emptied,
manured, tilled, smooth, and waiting.
Mower and tiller serviced and put away.

Smoker put away, as is the summer table.
Prayer flags, windsocks and their poles: down.
Twenty-foot homemade badminton poles,
peace flag at the top of one, store-bought net—
all down and put away for another year. No more
outdoor summer chores.

Fall planting — peonies and tiger lilies — done.
Summer flower stalks removed, beds mulched,
a blanket for the cold. Fall pruning done.

Woodshed roof hammered down and sealed again.
Cellar closed. Drive staked and flagged so the
snowplow knows where to go.

What else is there to do? Finally, for once, we are ready
for the snow. Ready now to come inside. Time now for
words and music, poems and shakuhachi. Time now
to light some incense, sit and stare at candlelight.

This is the first morning to be below freezing at our house, and except for the now-dead geraniums on the porch, we have readied the house for winter.  Although, when I sat on the cold steps at sunset yesterday, to pet the kitties, I spotted a tiny lavender pansy growing between the stones on the terrace– a lingering reminder of our ‘long and gracious fall’.

But, I love the words and music, poems and candlelight, of this new season.  An author-friend of mine is having a video produced to promote her latest novel, As The Christmas Cookie Crumbles.  She needed a fireplace as backdrop for the scene in which she talks to Santa, so I removed the velvet pumpkins from my mantle, and hurriedly put up some lighted greenery, lit a roaring fire, and she and the NBC crew did their video shoot in my living room last Friday.  That was all I needed to jump-start my holiday decorations.

My daughter, Joy, and I had a conversation last week in which she said she was irrationally excited about the Christmas holiday this year.  She was on her way home from a conference in Phoenix, and whilst sitting in 80 degree sunshine, she was planning her Christmas decorations.   We talked about how it was probably an escape from politics, the shootings, the fires, the fears we have for our future.  She said she wishes she could crawl into her enormous Christmas village, which glows in the bay window all through the holidays, and just live in there.  The season of darkness is upon us.  For me, staring at candlelight with fairy lights in the windows, is a way to embrace it all, and is a necessary part of winter preparedness.  And there is joy there–like the kingfisher, in Wendell Berry’s poem–“Somewhere the night had accommodated him”.

Before Dark


From the porch at dusk I watched
a kingfisher wild in flight
he could only have made for joy.

He came down the river, splashing
against the water’s dimming face
like a skipped rock, passing

on down out of sight. And still
I could hear the splashes
farther and farther away

as it grew darker. He came back
the same way, dusky as his shadow,
sudden beyond the willows.

The splashes went on out of hearing.
It was dark then. Somewhere
the night had accommodated him

—at the place he was headed for
or where, led by his delight,
he came.