Ten Lives

joy

I could spend ten lifetimes reading the stories of humankind and still not know enough. Sumeria, Greece, Egypt, Rome. China: the Records of the Grand Historian, Bamboo Annals, the Five Classics. Popol Vuh. Genghis Khan. Charlemagne. Tesla. Secret writings of ancient and medieval women.

I could spend ten lifetimes carrying out the ambitions of various parts of myself and still not do it all or well enough. Art—the swirl of vibrant color on thick white paper. Music—Bach fugue played a nine-foot grand. Literature—a turn of phrase that takes away breath, stories that ache to be told.

Plant, cultivate, and harvest, dry, freeze, slice—onion and butter sizzle in a hot iron skillet, ready for potato. Goats— chewing alfalfa hay at the barn door, watching me with yellow slit eyes. Weave and sew fine cloth, yards of it filling my arms. Gather fallen twigs to kindle a fire, add more wood and watch the flames spread, leap, fall to pulsing coals and pale ash.

I could love ten thousand men and a thousand women and still not have loved enough. Never have touched enough soft skin. Never have kissed enough lips or marveled enough at the mingling of color in the iris of an eye. Lens to the soul I worship with my body.

With endless days would come endless shapes of clouds racing across the sky, dark and turbulent rolling in with thunder, thin wisps high in frozen air. Rain lash the walls, wind bend the trees. Deep in the forest an open glade glows chartreuse. Sun sears dry ground, bakes the insects scuttling for shade. Hoar frost coats the grass and fence wire, forms iridescent lace of spider webs. Snow drifts down at dawn, five degrees and the air is blue.

In these things and countless more, the joy of physical being fills my heart, tells me why I exist. More than the grief, the suffering, the despair, it is the supreme excellence of incarnation that drives me to my stubborn end.

Lingering Winter

soupAroma thick with thyme and marjoram steams from the simmering split pea soup. I’ve enjoyed the whole process—chopping onion, celery, and carrot, measuring the spices and selecting the bay leaves, stirring until the soupy mass starts to bubble and boil. More condensation to collect on the window panes where sleet bounces and taps it rhythm against the other side.

There’ll be no venturing out today. The roads are slick with ice. Time to relax and accept what the Mother has in store, a lingering blast of winter with all its gifts of cold and white. Wind whistling at the chimney where smoke of my wood fire plumes sideways. Time to muse on past winter days when fire blazed hot and pan lids jiggled, when my gaze settled on the distance and roamed over the years of my life.

Memories of winter’s challenges rise up to nourish me on these days, recollections of times when hardships were met and I was satisfied with my refuge, my larder, my conquest of the elements. In more distant times, I might have twisted strands of wool or linen and watched the wheel spin it to thread, or pounded clothes in a hot kettle for cleaning, or ground corn between stones to make coarse bread. I might have wrapped my children in animal skins and tied my own feet in fur before braving the cold for more wood, or brought the livestock into the other end of a rough cabin to keep them from freezing in the long nights.

How did I, of all my previous iterations, manage to occur here, now, where everything I need comes more or less effortlessly—the twist of a knob, click of a button, the turn of a key? A house with insulated walls and thick glass that keep in the warmth and allow me to watch frozen rain fall from gray-white clouds. What future embodiments of myself will wonder back on this time and what will they know? What I don’t know. What I can imagine for better. Or worse.

I don’t have to figure it out. Anyway, I can’t. Better to turn to the pan and stir the soup, add another log to the fire, stand at the window longer and marvel at the shades of gray and rust among the trees of the woods, the white of the sky and ground. Soon the scene will explode in infinite shades of green and heat will soak the edges. I’ll be pleased then to remember this cold.

Winter Night

adding wood to boiler 0001By two a.m. the fire in the woodstove had died down enough that the cold took over. Under heavy blankets and comforter, I could feel the temperature dropping in the house. The electric radiator in the bedroom is no match for six degrees, even with window curtains pulled tight.

A quick trip to the bathroom brought me shivering back to the bed. With the covers pulled up to my nose, I imagined myself not in this last century of modern comforts but rather in the earlier vast millennia of human existence. The cave, skin-covered hut or even the wooden long house would have been far colder, warmed only by open hearth fires and our breath. Heavy furs of mammoth or bear lay under and over us as we curled our knees to our chest and ducked our cold ears into the hidden warmth.

Fire tenders dragged long dead limbs further into the blaze and tugged their fur cloaks around their shoulders, watching as sparks flew into the air and ensuring the fire stayed in its place. Cabbages, apples, onions, and turnips rested in straw lined pits, safe from the cold, and around the perimeter of the shelter, chunks of meat sat semi-frozen, waiting to be brought to the flat rocks at the fire’s edge to drip fat and send up tantalizing aroma. Even then, as food cooked, as men dragged in more wood from the pile near the shelter’s door, we kept our furs tucked over us, waiting for spring.

In the long hours of midwinter night, sleep comes and goes. Fantastical dreams shift us from our known world, so that we fly into the future or past. I relived the death of a loved one and the loss resonated through me, and then magic knowledge enabled me to speed backwards in time with him until I found a new path, a year when a different choice meant longer life, and even before that, an even better restart. Our lives moved forward from there and when we came to the fatal day, he lived.

What was the magic? In the dream, I told myself I would remember. But I don’t. I remember that it was simple, that if I had let myself know what I really know, it would have been obvious. But it’s not.

Other visions of long sleep arise and fade, memories recast in distorted frames, possible futures emblazoned on unfamiliar horizons. The mysteries of embodiment tease around the edges, other forms, foreign memories. Deep in the warm thicket of my bed, I am free to fly away and see it all.

My feet find warm spots at the dog’s side, where the cat lies curled. A screech owl screams its cry at the wood’s edge. At the three a.m. passing of the train, its distant warning echoes up from the valley and sets the coyotes singing. At four-thirty, I’m awake again, fresh from another restive dream, and wondering if I should brave the cold to start new fire.

I wait, snuggled in all my wealth of warmth, finding one comfortable position, then another, until the night starts to lighten and the dogs go outside. Now the quick wood catches  in its cove of dried twigs and crumpled newspaper, and the cast iron around it warms. I make tea, open the curtains to stare out at the pale blue and pink world of dawn. Winter sets its own rhythm, and I am content to follow.