Friday, March 14, 2014

The real St. Patrick

Our New England coastline is evocative of the emerald isle.

In observance of St. Patrick’s Day, we wear green clothing, eat corned beef and cabbage; and some of us will even tip a few pints of green ale.

But why do we honor the patron saint of Ireland?

Patrick was born around 385, but biographers are unsure of the site of his birth in Britain, perhaps near Dumbarton on the Clyde, in Cumberland to the south of Hadrian’s Wall or at the mouth of the Severn.

In his spiritual autobiography, the “Confessio,” Patrick tells us that he was of Roman and British ancestry; and his father, Calpurnius, was a municipal official.

When he was a teen, Patrick was carried off by Irish raiders, who took him somewhere in County Mayo.

A slave, Patrick worked as a shepherd. He tells us he was lonely and afraid and that he turned to his religion for help.

“The love of God and his fear grew in me more and more, as did the faith, and my soul was raised so that in a single day, I have said as many as a hundred prayers and in the night nearly the same,” he wrote.

Six years in captivity, Patrick said he heard God’s voice in his sleep, telling him to leave Ireland.

According to his biographers, he ran away walking 200 miles, found free passage on a ship and spent three days before reaching land in some uninhabited country. But eventually he returned to his family.

When he was 23 years old, Patrick saw a vision of an angel in a dream beckoning him to return to the western isle as a missionary.

He also heard voices saying, “We beg you, holy youth, to come and walk among us once more.”

After studying for the priesthood, Patrick decided to dedicate himself to the spread of Christianity in the places of his slavery.

He spent the next 30 years, traveling throughout Ireland founding schools, churches and monasteries.

Using native beliefs to teach Christianity, he superimposed a sun, a powerful pagan symbol, on the Christian cross, which became the Celtic cross; and he used the three-leafed shamrock to represent the Trinity: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Patrick died on March 17, 461 and was buried at Saul on Strangford Lough.

One thousand, five hundred and fifty-three years later, we celebrate the saint’s day; and he continues to teach us:

“Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.
Be still.
―St. Patrick

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Spring is on the way

Peeking out the back door, I notice that the temperature gauge on the deck reads zero again.

Rock-hard snow still covers the yard, and the driveway and brick path to our front door are caked in layers of ice treacherous to drive or walk on.

Blinding snow squalls appear out of nowhere, and flurries are as commonplace as rain, while yet another winter storm watch has been posted with six inches to a foot of the white stuff in the forecast.

By all appearances we are in the throes of one of the coldest, snowiest seasons in memory. But no matter what Mother Nature throws at us now, we duck and know her fury is short-lived. March may come in as a lion, but in three weeks it will be springtime – and that changes everything.

“We often have a real blizzard in March; but even so, we have seen the earth again and felt the wind of spring,” said New England author Gladys Taber, who wrote from her seventeenth-century farmhouse in rural Connecticut. “It is just another removal sale on Nature’s part.”

A few hours later I am sitting in the Ram watching a hardy soul walk the beach. I should venture out, but instead I remain in the warmth of the truck cabin and dream about spring.

Not long from now the sand will soften, balmy breezes will blow, this deserted shoreline will fill with beach-goers and the Sakonnet will buoy a fleet of pleasure boats.

Ah, springtime…

At the summer house, we drive into the back yard; and I try to imagine that this Arctic tundra is a thick, springy bed of green grass.

Surveying the snow-covered roof of the house, we unlock the front door and step into the cold, musty confines of the dwelling. After checking each of the rooms, we thank God that they are intact, just the way we left them last fall.

A few years ago, we arrived to find a pile of rumble in the living room, where the ceiling had caved in.

I smile. In my mind I have already moved back. I am home.

So let the storms rage on...

“It doesn’t matter if a few shingles fall off in the hurrying wind,” said Taber. “It isn’t important that the yard is going to be an inland lake for some time. It doesn’t matter too much if a falling branch cuts off the electric. Spring is on the way.”

Friday, February 14, 2014

The wonder of wintering waters

Snow seems to be a constant companion these days, shifting down like flour or in giant floating flakes, painting our world in shimmering strokes of white.

At the seashore, drifts of snow-covered sand contrast mightily with the pulsing Sakonnet, as gray as steel.

Waving noisily in the wind, the brittle, ice-encrusted sea grasses still harbor wildlife in its crusty depths.

This time of year is often described as “the dead of winter,” but the reference is dead wrong. Life is abundant and manifest everywhere even on the coldest of days.

Staring out to sea, I imagine the countless unseen populations of marine life thriving beneath the waves, sheltered in saltwater, warmer than air.

While driving along the coastline, I stop by the side of the road near a farm. Leaving their wooden shelter, two horses with a determined gait trot out into a stonewall paddock, their pasture a field of snow.

The simple beauty of the scene takes my breath away – blanketed animals in a blanket of snow.

Reaching the Sapowet Management Area, a wildlife preserve on the east bank of the Sakonnet River, I marvel at the incredible numbers of geese that have sought refuge in this shallow saltwater bay.

Members of the waterfowl family, our native, medium-sized geese have webbed feet and thick bills designed for filtering small organisms in the water or for grasping underwater vegetation and shellfish.

Geese undergo lengthy migrations between their northern or inland breeding areas and coastal wintering waters.

I watch them patter across the water to get airborne. Wonderful. 

Driving onto the frozen terrain of the preserve, I catch a colony of seagulls unaware. Those offended by my trespass flap their wings in annoyance, but most plainly ignore me.

Despite the frigid temperatures at this estuarine intertidal wetland, the Ring-Billed Gulls congregate on the icy bank, with their white heads and underparts blending into the white world around them.

Their wingtips are black with white spots, their bills yellow with a black ring near the tips.

From December through February, their habitat is our New England coastline, and today they are right at home in this Arctic paradise – and so am I.

“I thank You God for this amazing/ day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees /and a blue dream of sky; and for everything / which is natural which is infinite which is yes,” wrote poet e.e. cummings.


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

'There is no such thing as bad weather'

Temperatures hover in the single digits, and last week yet another nor’easter blew in a foot of snow.

Ice clings to rooftops and roads, and ponds are frozen over, perfect for skating, if we can brave the cold.

“There is no such thing as bad weather; the good Lord simply sends us different kinds of good weather,” said nineteenth-century English writer and art critic John Ruskin.

Driving to the summer house, I try to forget the intense, bone-chilling cold and 30-mile-an-hour wind gusts. Instead I notice all the good things around me – sun on ice making trees and houses sparkle light diamonds, the smell of wood smoke in the air, tiny footprints in the snow, the quiet…

“One reason for the beauty of New England has always been the architecture, for the houses and churches were built to fit the land and the climate,” said Gladys Taber, who wrote from her seventeenth-century farmhouse on forty acres in rural Connecticut. “The steep pitch of roofs shed heavy snow, low eaves shed the melt easily, and the small-paned windows kept out the bitter cold, as did the low-hung doors. The houses were as staunch as the sailing ships that went out from Gloucester, New Bedford, Provincetown.”

We stop for breakfast at The Black Goose, which overlooks Nanaquaket Pond. A fishing boat is stuck in the middle of an Olympic-sized, saltwater ice rink. The fisherman has no need to row out to his vessel; he can walk.

At the summer house we drive into the backyard, expecting a world of white; but what we find is desert landscape. Snow lies beneath layers of sand whipped by heavy winds from the sand flats in the nature preserve and saltmarsh. I have lived here since childhood, and I cannot remember sand dunes in our yard in the middle of winter.

I stay in the truck to avoid being pelted by sand. The summer house, covered in snow, is an igloo, hibernating and waiting patiently for spring.

The farmland behind our property is filled with thousands of geese, seeking sanctuary from the unforgiving winds and sand. They hover together in the fields, a giant shorebird reunion.

We drive along the beach, following the rime that has encrusted the shoreline. The waves are angry, battling ice floes that try to take shape in vain, doomed to lie broken on the rocky shore.

Then the sun breaks through the dark gray clouds and fills the truck cabin with light and warmth.

Inspired, I reach into my bag with cold fingers, pull out a pad and begin to write…

It’s all good.


Monday, January 13, 2014

Reflections on a beach in winter


Time marches on.

Another year is a gift, a second chance. We start over and begin anew.

“Still round the corner there may wait, a new road, or a secret gate,” said J.R.R. Tolkien.

I start the day at the beach, which is just as lovely as in midsummer, only much colder.

It is deserted except for a few seagulls circling overhead, turning their wings against the wind and casting shadows on the shore.

Sunlight streams into the truck cabin keeping me toasty warm as I gaze in awe at the panorama before me.

In the morning sun, the snow coruscates, as bright light reflects on ocean waves.

Dusted with snow, granite boulders by the water’s edge seem like the stuff of snowmen, huge snowballs waiting to be placed atop each other.

William Blake said, “In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.”

As I adjust to the tranquility around me, I feel the strain of the past week lessen its hold.

In Genesis, God called his creation the sea and filled it with all kinds of swimming creatures with which the water teems, and God saw how good it was.

A walk along the beach in January is very good indeed and a constant reminder of change. Every year, every day, every second – the sea is changing. Countless populations of marine life shift. No stone is left unturned. It is a world in flux.

Today the beach is a world of white, wearing its winter wardrobe of snow and ice, a blank slate lying fallow.

I walk slowly leaving behind footprints in the snow-encrusted sand.

This quiet, open space in this in-between time or interstice reminds me of a musical composition. As a lifelong musician, I think of the Grand Pause.

The concert band rises to a crescendo, and then there is a sudden silence. The musicians have come to a G.P. or Grand Pause, which is a notation over a rest indicating that they are expected to extend the silence until the conductor signals the beginning of the next note. The function of this pause is to create a period of silence at the direction of the director.

January is a grand pause, time to reflect at the Creator’s direction.

“You can’t get too much winter in the winter,” said Robert Frost, who lived deep in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

The cold, biting wind ushers me along. A world of possibilities lies ahead.



Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Christmas that almost wasn't

Sitting in the truck at the beach, I'm physically and mentally exhausted; and I always come here when I'm feeling like this.

Looking back, I have experienced the sublime joy of childhood Christmases and all those wonderful years with my own young children, as well as the utter heartbreak of laying my paternal grandfather to rest on Christmas Eve.

But this Christmas was like no other – a rollercoaster ride of extreme lows and highs that can be described as nothing short of miraculous.

I had spent Christmas Eve cooking, cleaning and setting up for our Christmas feast for 14.

I awoke Christmas morning with a smile. “Christ is born!” Then my husband and I attended Christmas Mass.

Driving home, I was busy making lists in my head of all the things necessary to carry out my dinner plans.

Back at the house, I put on my Christmas apron and got to work – but then the phone rang.

My mother was crying. My 89-year-old father was having difficulty breathing, and he had just been transported by ambulance to the hospital.

In a daze, I took off my apron, placed the hams in the oven on the timer, put my coat back on and headed to the Emergency Room.

My mother and my father’s sister were already there, and hospital policy dictated that only two visitors were allowed in the ER. I sat in the plastic seat and waited.

What was the delay? Was he unconscious? Would I ever see him again?

I thought about my beautiful young aunt – a second mother to me – whom I lost two months ago.

Coming to my senses, I began to pray.

It was a very long 20 minutes before I was granted access. I spoke to the doctor. He said that the chest x-ray was normal and prescribed an over-the-counter medication. Unbelievably, my father could go home.

Since my father had arrived by ambulance, he was in his pajamas and had no coat or shoes. We wrapped him a thin white hospital blanket, and my mother put the detachable hood from her coat on his head. The hospital slippers would have to do.

I finally stopped shaking on the way home. When I walked in the door, I put on my apron and jumped in where I left off.

All our friends and family arrived as planned, and dinner was ready on time. Throughout the long afternoon I kept kissing and hugging my dad, maybe annoyingly so.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Warming up – A Christmas story


Many years ago when I was a young mother, I went to the grocery store with my daughter and waited behind a poor old gentleman who was unable to pay his bill. I desperately wanted to help him, but I was afraid and kept silent. The episode bothered me so much that I went home and wrote this fictional Christmas story. I wish I had been the woman in my story.

Dan held the mug of coffee tightly in both hands and felt the steam rising to his face. He lifted the cup to his lips and let the bitter amber liquid trickle slowly down his throat.

Even though he knew that the apartment was well-heated and comfortable, he was cold. He felt that he would never be warm again.

Dan was always cold and lonely. He missed Abigail and the children – but Abby was gone now, and the kids had their own lives to lead, their own problems to solve.

The future looked bleak. His days were filled with routine. He was thankful for his independence and reasonably good health, but he longed for something more.

“An old man’s foolish dreams,” he thought to himself.

Dan placed the empty cup on the table and reached into a pocket for his wallet. He opened the worn black billfold and checked its contents. There wasn’t much money left, but he would make do. He always had.

Walking gingerly to the closet, he took out his winter jacket, a flannel-lined wool coat. Briefly, his eyes scanned the kitchen shelves. He made a mental note of a few items, slid into his coat sleeves, and placed his keys in the ample pocket.

Making sure that the door was locked securely behind him, Dan slowly descended the winding staircase.

It was an overcast and blustery December day. He shivered and pulled his collar up around his neck as he sauntered down the street toward the supermarket.

There was a time when he had enjoyed grocery shopping. He had loved to watch Abby shop. Even though their Social Security checks barely covered the necessities, she always had enough for the bill and managed to save a little bit extra.

He smiled when he remembered how she used to sneak a little something into the basket for the kids. He would always pretend not to notice.

Dan knew how much it had pleased her to feel that she had made the burden a little lighter for him – and she had. Being with Abby had made everything easier.

He entered the market, chose a cart, and started the trek through the numerous well-stocked aisles. Sterile-sounding Christmas carols played over the intercom.

He was tired as he finally made his way to the express checkout lane. In the corner of the oversized shopping cart were cans of soup, cereal, orange juice, bread, and coffee.

He took his place at the end of the line, which wound its way down the immense corridor. Impatient shoppers paced nervously while they inched forward. Dan waited.

No one spoke. His mind wandered. He remembered the market he had shopped at when he and Abby were newlyweds. The proprietor had been a friendly man who had appreciated each of his customers. The cashiers had called Dan by name.

It was different now – so impersonal. Everyone just stared straight ahead while the electronic scanners did the talking.

It was his turn now. With disbelief he saw the final total on the register. He would have to put something back.

Dan felt ashamed. He had never had much money, but he had always had his pride. Now he felt that even that had been taken from him.

Dan cleared his throat and in a whisper told the clerk that he had changed his mind about the coffee.

The lady behind him bent down, picked something up, and tugged at Dan’s sleeve.

“I think you dropped this, sir,” the woman said, handing him a small slip of paper.

Confused, he glanced at the free coffee coupon and without thinking passed it on to the clerk.

The old man looked up in surprise when the total came within his means. He paid the bill, accepted his change, picked up the bag and walked out of the store.

Dan smiled at the woman as she came through the exit doors into the cool, bright sunshine.

“Why did you do that for me?” Dan asked as he patted the head of the squirming toddler strapped securely in the front of her shopping cart. “You could have used that coupon for your own family.”

“God has always given us enough and a little bit extra,” she replied. “I like to share the extra.”

With eyes brimming with tears, Dan reached for her hand, squeezing it tightly.

“God bless you,” he said. “Have a very merry Christmas.”

As Dan walked back to his apartment, he didn’t feel quite as cold as before. He felt the warm sunshine on his back and a warmth radiate from within.

Impulsively, he stopped at the first-floor apartment and knocked on his neighbor’s door. He waited patiently while Harry opened the multiple latches.

Smiling into Harry’s puzzled face, Dan said, “Why don’t you come up for a cup of coffee?”