‘Tis the season to be . . . quiet

While everyone seems to be pulling Christmas ornaments out of storage, hanging wreaths, and stringing lights outside, I am following my own holiday tradition by resisting the impulse to join them.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, my seasonal decoration of choice is a simple arrangement of evergreens and candles that will remain on the dining room table until just bP1010437efore Dec. 25.

I understand completely the desire to drive out the dark by infusing our surroundings with Christmas cheer as soon as the Thanksgiving dishes are done. This year especially, when our region has had an early blast of winter weather well before the solstice, it has been tempting to try to shake off the specter of increasingly shorter days with a liberal application of light and color.

But I am choosing again to experience the stillness and darkness of the season leading up to the holiday by holding off on the big decorating and engaging in a time of quiet waiting.

In delaying some of the gratification of Christmas, I am following the practice observed by my mother and father, who likely learned it from their immigrant Eastern European parents. As a child anxious for Christmas and living in a world that jump-started the holiday earlier each year, I didn’t necessarily like that we put up our Christmas tree later than everyone else. As an adult, however, I have come to see the wisdom in waiting, difficult as that can be while the Christmas whirlwind swirls around me and threatens to sweep me into its vortex.

It helps in all this to have the support of a spiritual tradition that observes the season of Advent, which means an arrival or coming. During it, we light one candle, then two, then three, and finally four, on the Sundays leading up to Christmas as we mark the time and think about what – and whom – we await. Our scripture readings for this period talk about being on watch, something we know we cannot do if we are distracted and busy. They also urge us to do some interior house-cleaning, sweeping out the dust of old thought patterns and clearing the clutter of corrosive habits. Stopping to light a candle, pray, and reflect week by week, it seems, slows down the pre-Christmas rush, refreshes our spirits, and helps us turn our eyes away from the material aspects of the holiday, making room for its deeper meaning.

So, even as I buy gifts, write cards, bake, plan food for Christmas gatherings, and try to meet that last writing deadline before Dec. 25, I have a template to follow, a kind of rule that keeps calling me back to where I want to be, in and out of this festive season. It’s not that I don’t get rattled or overwhelmed by all the things that must be done in this busiest of times, but I have a visual reminder – my simple Advent wreath – that summons me to a place of peace and invites me to linger there to consider what is really important and what matters most.

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Sweet sounds of the harvest

The chill of the approaching winter has begun to move in, but the harvesting of the farm fields around us still goes on, as it does every fall. Even with snow flurries in the forecast and the TV meteorologists telling us we are having December weather in November, the hum of farm machinery traversing the surrounding fields is in the air.

For me, it is one of the sweetest sounds of the season. That might seem odd coming from someone who writes about and values quiet, but during the harvest, a churning combine is less a noise that intrudes on the peace of our rural setting and more a sound that evokes pleasant associations.P1000738

When the soybean crop – or wheat or corn – is taken off our little plot of land, not only do we happily anticipate the possibility of extra income, but we are reminded of even greater gifts: the land that connects us to family and the big-hearted people who work it for us.

Since moving 10 years ago onto acreage that has been in my husband’s family for a few generations, we often have recalled with appreciation those who lived here before we did without the conveniences we enjoy. We also have known – in bounds – the generosity of our farmer neighbors.P1000744 Besides planting and harvesting our field in spring and fall, they have moved snow for us in the winter and helped us fell dead trees during other seasons. In the summer and beyond, their garden has provided us with everything from beets to zucchini, not to mention the jams and other canned goods that come from their kitchen. Even when we try to reciprocate with a bottle of wine or a box of pears, it’s impossible to return home without a jar of preserves or a head of cabbage.

During our sojourn here, we also have looked to these neighbors for advice about water management, septic systems, wells, and weather – especially snowstorms. They still laugh with us over the night we thought we were keeping up with a significant storm by plowing continuously, a strategy that created barriers of snow on either side of our lane and got us stuck twice. When they heard our midnight tale of woe the next morning and headed over with bigger equipment to knock down the snow walls, all they said was “You should have called!”

Since then, we have had many other opportunities to stand in awe of what they do and the ease with they seem to handle rural life. For them, it’s all in a day’s work, but for us, it’s an art – and something to be admired.

As I snapped photos of their combine making its way through the field a few weeks ago, I was captivated by the sight of the hulking machine stirring up dustP1000734 as it cut, winnowed, and collected the beans. It struck me that, even in the age of mechanization, farming still has a certain romance about it. Our neighbors may not take to the fields singing songs while they work, as portrayed in the idealized rural TV series, Lark Rise to Candleford, but they face the same elements their forebears did, knowing that at the end of the day, they are at the mercy of weather and wind, and whatever price the market will bear.

This year, I got an even closer look at the harvest than my camera would provide when I was invited aboard the combine for a few passes up and down the field. In the interim, I learned what combines were like when our neighbor was a boy and how when he drove his first one as an adolescent, it was not in an enclosed cab with a radio, but on a tractor exposed to the open air. As I watched the beans he had cut spilling out of a chute P1000763and into the truck that was standing by for a trip to the grain elevator, I sensed the satisfaction he and his son, who now runs the family farming enterprise, must glean from their work.

By the time I disembarked, I had added another dimension to my own connection to the land and gained a renewed appreciation for the people to whom it is both home and livelihood. Because of them and this place, the sounds of the harvest always will be sweet.

The still life of a birdwatcher

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Blackburnian Warbler. Photo by Kim Smith

The year I ventured into the world of serious birdwatching, I probably spent as much time observing the birders as the birds.

Something about the people who were able to discern the presence of a particular bird, first with the naked eye or ear and then through binoculars, fascinated me, as did the near-magical atmosphere of the wildlife area where they had flocked to seek out birds during the spring migration.

I saw serene, thoughtful countenances, felt a sense of quiet anticipation, and heard a whole new language spoken mostly in subdued tones: “Cooperative male Canada warbler with a nice necklace. Around 10 o’clock, where that branch with the clump of leaves forks. See? He just dropped down. There, to the right of that tangle.”

Like a star-struck groupie, I was drawn to these longtime avian enthusiasts who had the air of experience about them, yet would take time to help me through my early awkward efforts at birding, guiding me to my first sighting of a spectacular bird.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak by Kim Smith

Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Photo by Kim Smith

They won me over not with flashy personalities, but with serene and generous spirits that beckoned me to share in the knowledge they had developed over years of keen observation. Although like every other group, birders are diverse, I noticed that some of the best are quiet types who don’t have the trappings of a big personality or the gift of clever repartee. They seem to possess an inner repose and so bring to birding a receptive spirit that settles in to listen and watch, easily tuning out distractions.

From watching and interacting with these tranquil beings, I wanted to be more like them, much as a young disciple looks to a spiritual father or mother as a model. I remember especially a man with a disabling physical condition who identified a Prairie warbler for me during my first year of birding. In succeeding years, he has no longer been able to easily navigate through the clusters of birders on the trail and so has done most of his birding from a folding stool, but whenever I see him, I am assured of hearing a report of some splendid sightings. I always have the sense that he sees and hears things the rest of us miss because we have to keep moving.

Regardless of their religious beliefs, birders have confirmed what my own spiritual tradition teaches: that the stillness, quiet, and attitude of listening birders bring to their pursuit are essential if we are to hear or see anything of lasting value. As Rumer Godden writes in the book, In This House of Brede, referring to an artist who has come to the monastery to work, “It was the silence of Brede that pleased him. ‘I can hear life,’ he said.”

White-throated Sparrow by Kim Smith

White-throated Sparrow. Photo by Kim Smith

In a world numbed by its attachment to technology and noise, the birders I have observed and emulated hear and see life, whether they are delighting in finding a tiny Blackburnian warbler with its brilliant orange “fire throat” or an American Woodcock whose brown camo coloring allows it to blend into the woodland landscape.

I share in this richness of the bird trail when I slow down enough to listen to the simple, soothing song of the White-throated Sparrow on these spring days, notice an Eastern Phoebe patiently waiting for the movement of an insect in my garden, or spy a Rose-breasted Grosbeak on a branch outside the kitchen window.

But I reap even more when I apply the lessons of birding to my daily life: when I am willing to wait and watch for something wonderful, when I listen for the sound of a distant song, and when I am still enough to believe in the Goodness of it all.

 

Where the birds are: If this post has piqued your interest in birding and you can travel to northwest Ohio, known as the “warbler capital of the world,” a great once-a-year opportunity awaits you during the Biggest Week in American Birding, which begins Tuesday, May 6, and continues through May 15. Also, Kim Smith, who blogs at natureismytherapy.com and graciously provided photos for this post, will be blogging from the Biggest Week and coordinating the efforts of the event’s blog team.

Snow days

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The joy of the first snowfall of the season is a distant and slightly unreal memory these days as our corner of the world universally acknowledges it is tired of winter and dreaming of spring.

We are weary of record snowfalls and cold temperatures that have brought us a season of altered plans, closed schools, stranded travelers, and indoor confinement. We have been inconvenienced, rescheduled, whipped about by the winds, and mesmerized by the crawl on our television screens alerting us to road conditions and cancellations.

Winter has its beauties, to be sure, but it sometimes has been a challenge to bring them into focus while digging our way out of the aftermath of the latest storm.

Still, as the snow has piled up, I have been conscious of a kind of acceptance that has settled in. Perhaps it is the fruit of living a little closer to nature as I have done since moving to “the country” 20 or so years ago. It’s as if the price of enjoying the beauty the natural world bestows on me is a humble bow to its inconveniences and a nod to its superiority.

Like everyone else, I am tired of the snow and the cold, but amid it all, I have found myself taking time to enjoy the season’s pleasures by looking out the window at a winged visitor resting on the edge of the bird bath, the rich colors unfolding in a sunrise or a sunset, or the pattern of shadows the trees cast on the snow.

In winter’s confinement and seclusion, I have not only seized these opportunities to pause and gaze outside, but to glance inward. Bereft of external distractions and supports like social gatherings oreven a daily walk, it has been tempting to turn on the radio or TV, check email, or look up something online. Not giving in to those distractions, though, forces me to do what most of us hate – stopping to face whatever is simmering under our cherished and blessedly diverting activity. Maybe that’s why everyone loves a snow day, but just one. After a day, not being able to get out and do what we normally do is no longer a novelty. It’s a nuisance. Stopping and being still means we have to think about what lies beneath. And most of us would rather not look. It’s as if we open the door of a closet we know needs cleaning and shut it quickly, dreading the very appearance of all that stuff that has to be sorted, disposed of, and reorganized.

Winter invites us to be quiet and still in a way that we simply cannot be during other seasons. If we accept the invitation, we may not like the look of all that stuff in the closet, but there may be a treasure in there somewhere, if only we will open the door and start sorting. We still have a month of winter left. Go ahead. Clean the closet.