finding warmth in winter ice

winter iceWinter ice has encased my house. It hangs from my gutters like tinsel on a Christmas tree or stalactites in a cave, dripping in columns up to 10 feet long. Unless they melt away today I will be imprisoned.
Last winter one of these suckers fell from my roof and bashed in my AC compressor. The thing looks like it was hit by a meteor.
I love the ice, dangerous as it is. I love its sleek elegance, the way it catches the morning sun and glows from within. And I love how it signals the superiority of winter. We like to think we can master the elements, but the ice and snow tell us otherwise. One false step and the ice on my porch steps could paralyze me.
Winter has come to us with a wallop, apparently here to stay. Welcome winter! I am so ready to hunker down and live within your icy envelope. Just give me a working furnace, hot coffee and a good book and I will gladly submit to your mastery. For a bit.
Not so the woman I visited the other day who lives in a trailer with four girls. She has no gas heat with which to hold the cold at bay. A space heater is no match for the icy air seeping through broken windows and an inch-wide crack around the door. The floor offers no warmth for them to sleep on, beds being temporarily unavailable.
What for me is a season of happily hunkering down is for others a season of terror. Some will endure it sleeping in ratty bags underneath freeway overpasses. A few will die there. I once spent a night with a man who hunted these people up and invited them inside shelters. No thanks bud, they said. I’d rather freeze my butt off out here than warm it up with a bunch of drunks, then have to listen to the damn Bible lesson.
Winter nights must seem like an eternity under an overpass. But for me time has gone into fifth gear. All things are pulled forward by the tractor beam of Christmas. No one is making plans till it’s over. “Let’s get together after the first of the year.” Maybe we will, maybe we won’t. For now, the Christmas blitz is more than enough to keep me occupied.
For all the warmth I cherish this time of year – bundled up in my easy chair with a book, watching “Homeland” by the fire with dear Andrea, glowing inward at the sound of ancient carols – there is a coldness too. What once was family filled with parents and grandparents, cousins and aunts and uncles, has largely died off or scattered. My daughter, sister and brother live hundreds of miles away. Between divorce and jobs, there is no centering hearth now. The old family homestead, where my parents once welcomed us like lost sheep, sits empty.
A new kind of family is in process, anchored by Andrea and me. It is precious and will become more so with time. Yet the family that once was, full of singing and laughing and enticing aromas from the kitchen, hovers in my memory like a ghostly movie of Christmas past. I can’t help but miss it, even as I gratefully embrace all the blessings of now in another sacred season of love.
And I can’t help but wonder about who is out there in the cold, bodies shivering, or memories of joy encased in ice.

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Emily, Max and Father Time: love you all

Maxwell Honey, front-yard troubadour

Maxwell Honey, front-yard troubadour

Emily Hamilton-Honey, smart professor

Emily Hamilton-Honey, smart professor

So I recently looked up my daughter on the website of State University of New York-Canton, the upstate New York school where she teaches. I wanted to see if she had a photo of herself in the faculty listing yet.
Yep, there she was: Emily Hamilton-Honey, Ph.D., assistant professor of English and humanities. She looks very professional, confident and, dare I say it, smart. She should be, with all those universities and degrees listed next to her.
Yet as I look at the picture of this very professional and smart woman, I can’t put out of mind another photo. This one shows her also very confident, smart and cheerful as you please. But in this photo she is about 2 years old, with a pink bow in her hair and big round glasses framing her twinkling eyes. She is utterly darling.
Would Dr. Emily Hamilton-Honey be embarrassed by her dear old dad swooning over her 2-year-old portrait in this way? Perhaps. But sorry Emily, this is how it goes. When you are a parent, the child in your child never quite goes away, no matter how hard you try to see the actual adult.
Emily turns 34 today, Thursday, Nov. 13, the same day of the week she came into this world at Lansing’s Sparrow Hospital a little after 6 p.m. The 13 doesn’t bother me. What I am wrestling with right now is that first number. There’s nothing wrong with the number known as 34. I just can’t put it next to my first child and make any sense of it.
Same with my son, Max, who recently turned 27. That number is also wrong.
Max in my mind’s eye is still about 5, running across the living room and tackling me full force. His rugged little body knocks me over from the impact but I am able to wrestle him to the floor, where I proceed to tickle him mercilessly. Emily, 12, piles laughing onto the fray, but I am able to contain her as well with my free arm. We go on like this for a while, grappling and tickling and laughing.
Nothing else ever felt quite as glorious.
Now come on Dad, wipe away those tears. It doesn’t do to live in the past. Your children are grown and healthy and happy. That is the way it’s supposed to be. You want them to be happy adults. That’s how being a parent works.
Besides, if you tried to wrestle Max today he would kick your, ahem, behind. You’ve seen him throw larger adults than you to the floor in aikido demonstrations. Plus let’s face it, my tickling and grappling strength isn’t what it once was. This too is how it’s supposed to be.
But forgive me, Max and Emily, if I tear up occasionally over those floor-wrestling days. It doesn’t mean I want to turn back the clock. It just means those times were precious, and I do miss them.
We still have our precious times, of course, just not the same kind or as often. It is 613 miles from my door to Emily’s door, too far to see her more than once or twice a year. And though Max lives just a few miles away, the rhythms of his life and mine rarely coincide. Sometimes the easiest way to see him is to go to the restaurant where he works.
Now I know how Mom felt when I would come in the door at the family homestead in Williamston. Her face would light up like a Christmas tree and she would give me a big kiss. Dad would give me a strong hug. I’m sure they both saw, behind my ever-maturing adult mug, the 8-year-old kid who used to throw tennis balls against the barn roof and mysteriously disappear when it came time to pull weeds.
In this way, I recognize that Emily publishes articles, gives talks at academic conferences and lectures college students. I grasp that Max has a working knowledge of Mandarin Chinese, teaches martial arts and plays a mean guitar. I acknowledge they are grown-up people.
But I will always envision Max playing Scott Joplin at a school assembly and striking out batters in Little League. I will always see Emily twirling around the house to “Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel and singing the Disney Pocahontas song, “Colors of the Wind,” in a church talent show.
And I suppose I will always tear up thinking about tickling the two of them on the living-room floor. That too, apparently, is how it’s supposed to be.

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in the last light of day, October 2012, 6:32 p.m.

In last lightthe last light of day
On my tree-lined street
The leaves are changing color
The breeze is stirring them mysteriously
And everything looks a little brighter
Even as it fades away.
Like the last few sips of wine in the bottle
Or the last 30 seconds of a song
When you know it’s going to end soon
But it is still rocking and you are loving it
And its glorious sound fills you up
But you feel a little twinge of sadness
Because you know it’s almost over.
So it is with this day
So lately just begun
With limitless blue sky
And brightest warm sun
Like anything was possible.
Now come the clouds to the west
And the sun sinks lower
And the light begins to fade;
But still here, just a bit longer
The glory of this day
Fills me up with slightly sad sweetness
Just before the song ends.

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so long summer … well, not quite yet

Lake Michigan sunset
Labor Day 2014: The air is warm and moist, with just enough occasional breeze to slightly stir my American flag. The undercurrent sounds of crickets, birds and a train whistle remind me I’m not working. But tomorrow I will be. That’s how Labor Day works.
Remarkably, the window of summer has already begun to close. How quickly it has come and gone. Feels like yesterday I put up the flag, Fourth of July morning, when summer seemed broad and long. Now it’s narrowed and short, only so many mornings like this left. Only so many more sunsets on Lake Michigan. There are never enough.
But what a sweet summer it’s been! So many glorious days. For some it’s been: “Hot enough for ya?” “No it’s not as a matter of fact!” But for me it’s been perfect, a welcome abundance of mid-70s days and cool nights, and a surprising scarcity of sodden, muggy, sun-blistered afternoons. It’s been a summer of going outdoors and not wanting to come inside when the street lights come on. Boyhood revisited.
Thanks be to God for the glory that has been: Watching the stars come out over Crystal Lake. Holding hands with Andrea on long walks. Playing Frisbee in the Big Lake with old friend Gary. Watching the Tigers win behind from home plate with old friend John. Taking early evening bike rides through Millennium Park. Ordering up an ice cream cone, Mackinac Island Fudge, sugar cone single-dip please. Sitting on this porch reading the morning paper with good strong coffee.
All without leaving Michigan. What a beautiful place to celebrate summer.
But then came the quickening signs of fall. High school cross country runners loping past on city sidewalks, or high school football players crunching helmets on Union field. Time to start thinking about fixing the porch steps before another winter of ice build-up. Time to start planning out those projects at work. Long meetings.
It is Labor Day, after all. This means labor restarts in earnest tomorrow. Not if you’re a roofer or a farmer or a highway builder. But if you work with your head, it’s time to seriously start using it again. Summer has given you its peace and quiet and blissful walks along the shore in bare feet. Your footprints have long since washed away, and you may have seen your last sunset sinking into the big water.
It’s OK to miss it already. It’s just the rhythm of the great world turning round. It will all be back soon enough, calling you to the water and the sky and the lazy languid days.
I’m not quite ready to say goodbye, though. Just for this Labor Day, at least, summer is still here, sweet and moist with the slightest of breezes.

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the world is aflame, with war, flowers and sunsets

Park 1“You name it, the world is aflame,” a former national security aide recently told The New York Times. Calling the world “a very tangled mess,” Gary Samore said it’s more than your garden-variety complicated place for U.S. foreign policy. “What’s unusual is there’s this outbreak of violence and instability everywhere.”

Let us count the ways, shall we? Israel and Gaza nonstop shelling each other, a passenger plane blown out of the sky over Ukraine, the Ebola virus going nuclear in Africa, Boko Haram kidnapping school girls in Nigeria and ISIS making Al Qaeda look like nice guys by being as evil as any James Bond nemesis …

Actually let’s stop counting. It’s too depressing and downright scary. This has been the worst news summer I can remember. If I want this much political drama I’ll re-watch “Homeland.”

It’s oddly disconcerting that while the world is aflame with so much death, disease and destruction, summer in this cozy corner of the world has been unusually beautiful. I don’t know about where you live, but West Michigan has seen a succession of splendid days, a bit on the cool side but conspicuously absent the shirt-soaking, soul-killing heat. It has been a summer that pulls you outside, to pull weeds, take walks, pump your bicycle or drive to the lake.

It is with a whiff of residual Catholic guilt still echoing from my mother’s upbringing that I enjoy these blessed days. Forgive me father, for I have sinned the sin of indulging my senses in the world’s beauty while many elsewhere suffer and die. I should do something about the suffering and dying, yet I take a bike ride through the woods and over the river. It is the sin of shutting out pain and evil.

My world is aflame with flowers, glittering lakes and stunning sunsets.

I sePark 2e its splendor by riding a mere few miles from my home down the Kent Trails bike path, which takes me to Millennium Park. It is flecked with wildflowers and kissed with sparkling water. Herons feed on it, children splash in it and boaters paddle through it. The park is a modest piece of Eden, affording blessed moments of quiet when you stop the bike and listen to … barely anything.

To immerse myself in this rare beauty takes an effort of will. I must block out the flaming world and let my eyes focus on the quiet world. I must set aside the anxieties of what to do and let myself feel who and where I am. It is a kind of pedaling meditation.

The flaming world returns soon enough. Perhaps a blessed bike ride helps me deal with it when I get back. Whether it does or not, it is one indulgence I must make. For the days pass quickly, and you only get so many glimpses of Eden.

Frankfort sunset

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cool of the morning, God in his garden

Andrea's flowersIt is the cool of a summer morning. Mid-July. My slippers are soaked from walking through dew-drenched grass to feed the birds, who now feast on the seed I poured them in Andrea’s backyard. A blue jay’s caw pierces the quiet like a razor. Birds flit over rooftops and light on the feeder. The sky is soft blue lightly streaked with clouds, the air moist and still. The still-rising sun catches the dew with glints in the green. Mourning doves coo in the near distance, singing their melancholy psalms. The birds eat busily. All is ready for … something.

An army of worries awaits me, couched in their fields of trouble, just now emerging from their tents and stretching their arms. They have plenty of work for me. I don’t acknowledge them yet. My mind wants to stay here in the cool summer morning, thinking about nothing but what I see and hear. Is there a way to live like this? Doubtful. Life will not have it. These are only interludes of peace afforded very early on a Sunday like this. God is in his garden pulling up weeds. I need only to be still with all of this, just now, because soon the day will pull out of the driveway and be on its way. I will go with it wherever it takes me. Only now, for a bit longer, will it allow me to just be here, with the birds and the dew and the melancholy psalms.

Here I am poised halfway through July, at the midpoint of the great long year. So much has happened and so much yet will happen. I don’t object to what has happened or contest what will. This too must just be as it is. I can’t stop the flow of events nor should I. I can only surrender to the will of life like a river pushing me along. I think I know what’s coming around the bend but at some point I’ll be surprised. I will direct the course the best I can, knowing I could be upended at any point.

But this belongs to the army of worries, already trying to pull me out of the moment. This sweet moment, this only now. As private as sleep. Who else is on his porch drinking in the new day with a cup of coffee? Who else is pulling weeds besides God, her face still fuzzy with dreams? How long before Andrea hits the road in Ann Arbor, leaving her sister from surgery and coming to me to continue on our way? “What new battle will this day bring?” So asks Marshall Crenshaw, who may already be at work on a new song. “Just this morning I felt like trouble’s play thing.” Because there will be trouble; that much we know. It’s just a question of what we do with it. Hopefully it will not capsize us.

But there is no trouble now. Only me, and the birds, and the dew, and the soft blue sky. Except there – an airplane in the southern sky, heading west. Who is on it? Where are they going? What new troubles will their day bring?

And now the birds burst away in a shock of flurried wings. Worship is almost over.

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the miracle of flight: tiny bottles and brief intimacies

The guy sitting next to me on the flight to Des Moines was youngish, mplane in skyid-20s probably. I couldn’t tell if he was friendly or not. I wasn’t feeling especially so. I decided to read for the two hours it would take us to get there.
But there is something about sitting cheek by jowl next to a person on an airplane. You are in a fairly unnatural situation, thrust together in this gigantic hunk of flying metal 30,000 feet in the air. Surely there is an underlying sense of shared peril, no matter that statistics say you are safer than driving on I-96. As Louis C.K. says of griping airline passengers, “Did you soar through the clouds, impossibly? Did you partake of the miracle of human flight? You’re sitting in a chair in the sky!”
So back to the guy next to me going to Des Moines. There is a natural tendency to introduce yourself to a fellow passenger whose elbow is touching yours after you’ve both figured out which seat belt belongs to you. And truth be told I didn’t have much to read anyway. I asked him where he was going.
It was a convention of Wells Fargo interns. He was a business major working at Wells Fargo’s Philadelphia office, learning to do what they do there. Resisting the urge to ask if he got to ride the stagecoach, I plumbed more details about his life. Turns out he was a very friendly guy and told me about growing up in a town north of New York City, and how much he loved the life of the Big Apple.
Me being me, it didn’t take long to ask if he was a Mets fan or a Yankees fan. Yankees all the way. I gritted my teeth and told him I was a Tigers guy, and we smiled at our shared awareness of that ancient rivalry. We spoke of the great Jeter and Cabrera and the Yankees’ injury problems and their phenomenal new pitcher Masahrio Tanaka (who has since gotten injured himself). The young man’s baseball knowledge was comprehensive and historical, creating an instant bond between us I never would have guessed by looking at him.
Had we been traveling farther I would have dug deeper, asking about what his parents did for a living, if he had any siblings and what movies he’d seen lately. As it was we parted pleasantly as the plane landed in Des Moines, not having gotten each other’s names but gotten something deeper about our shared love of baseball.
This kind of intimacy on short notice is one of the little blessings of air travel. As Jerry Seinfeld notes, everything on airplanes is little: the tiny liquor bottles, the wee bathroom, the slight delays. The little acquaintances we make are nice reminders that, when forced into close quarters, our first instinct is to get to know one another.
This means we start out looking for what we have in common. “Philadelphia, huh? I have a cousin who’s from there! It’s a pretty nice city isn’t it?” We are predisposed to find things we like in common and about each other. And we take more interest than normal in who this complete stranger is and what he or she does in life.
I once had a pretty long plane conversation with a guy who worked for a food company in Hudsonville, not far from my home in Grand Rapids. We talked at length about the food industry, the pros and cons of organics and the increasing attractions of downtown GR. By the time we landed I felt I knew this young man fairly well, at least enough to write a brief Wikipedia entry about him.
My most memorable airplane acquaintance was a lovely woman named Doris Dudley. She sat next to me on my first flight to England back in 1976. It was an overnight and my first international flight, so I allowed myself a few tiny bottles of vodka with orange juice. I warmed happily to Doris Dudley’s tales of growing up in London and sleeping in the subway during Hitler’s bombing blitz. She had a merry voice, or at least it sure sounded merry to me as the little bottles emptied. By the time we landed at Gatwick I would have taken her as my grandmother.
It’s really too bad we don’t extend this sort of curiosity and generosity to people normally. More often than not we tend to notice how strangers seem different from us and judge them accordingly. And if we get into an online argument with them, you can just forget about any kind of bonding. It’s more like target practice.
Would that our daily interactions were more like airplane conversations, cheerfully getting to know each other in our chairs in the sky.

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