Have you ever stood so still That you could hear the world breathing?
Have you stepped so softly through the woods That you were startled by a crackle As a wasp munched leaves to papier mâché?
Have you ever watched so closely That you saw a hoverfly yaw, As on an invisible string, A perfect one-eighty, meeting Your gaze with twin dimpled prisms, Compound eyes scouring your mind.
Have you ever felt the wisdom of children Who see a Nashville warbler fall to the ground, Yellow neck snapped by a window strike, And think clearly enough to give it a name, So that they circle and say together “Rest in peace, Sunflower” when it’s buried?
If a bird is worth such a prayer And each insect deserves a poem, Is every man who ever lived And every woman now on earth An epic, a novel, a ballad, Waiting only for attention and a pen?
Image: Hearts-a-bustin, Hamilton County, Tenn., October 2020.
Leaves and branches, Oscilloscopes tracing Wind from gathering storms, Taunt my habit Of hunting curses under each blessing And copping exhaustion To avoid getting the shakes From a momentary lapse Of despair. Sunlight Always gets me down, Keeping me inside lest It warm my eyelids and ask me to rest In a dangerously peaceful grace.
I’m not sure I know How to say something earnest when nothing is weighing me down, Not sure how to speak An uplifting word Without the ashes Of profanity Clinging to my tongue. There is a way of seeking joy That requires Gouging out one’s eyes, And I like looking Too much to try it, Even on sale.
It’s easier to look For beauty in the dark, Glowing brighter the farther from What is plainly seen. If I learned to listen A little more To the upbeat bass line Throbbing beneath The frantic tenor Of making ends meet, Maybe I’d have A little more Levity though I’d speak less.
That’s when I start to laugh, Catching the joke That fear is only joy Hiding behind Something we will not understand Until it passes us by. This is what the trees Tried to say when In the early morning They stood, still and bronzed In the rosy mist, But I couldn’t hold A smile long enough To muster robust thanks.
Now that they scratch One another and flail Before the advance Of autumn air, I see plainly what comeliness The failing light wants to hide Where the glimmer is weakest. How carelessly we fall Back into hope. So little a splash Of fuel on a smoldering wick Sets a lamp flickering, for you Cannot burn out What had never been lit.
Image: Clouds and trees in slanted light, my front yard in Tennessee, August 2020.
I’ve always enjoyed drawing. As a kid it was a way to recreate the machined elegance of Spitfires, Mustangs, and other warplanes. I never quite mastered landscapes; people were right out.
Later, I took up photography with my dad’s Minolta XD 5, and haven’t let up on that hobby, though it loses some charm when we all have a fine lens in our pockets.
More recently though, my wife (who has always enjoyed painting and all things crafty) has become quite the watercolor aficionado. She’s really quite good, and she’s gotten the rest of the family into it, too.
The impetus for this turn has been the co-op school our older two girls attend (and where Rachel tutors part-time) which draws on Charlotte Mason’s educational ideas, including observational learning from nature. As such, each student is encouraged to keep a nature journal where they can paint or draw the things they spot in the world around them. We’ve adopted this habit as a family, and I’ve been amazed at what I’ve found in taking up the brush.
It starts off simply enough, it’s just drawing with paint, right? Except that’s not it at all. Learning to work in a medium to its strengths takes practice.
The milky paint acts like the water it is, seeking its level, finding the crevices in the paper like micro-arroyos, absorbing in to fade and spread colors. If you mix it thick enough to stay put, all of its liveliness shuts down, leaving you with flat, smeared lines.
To represent what you see, you have to paint what you don’t, laying down layers of color, slowly fading from light to dark to get things just right. The brush has to be held like a scalpel, the pressure, angle, and part of the tip with which you first touch the paper is going to set your course for good or ill. And once you’ve done something you don’t like, trying to fix it will only make it worse.
Watercolor has been a humbling learning curve for all of us, but perhaps for me—self-assured and overconfident as ever—most of all. You have to come prepared to shift along with it. The art takes you where it wants to go, and if you resist, it pushes you out of the picture.
During this time of pandemic and shutdown and quarantine, we’ve found some bursts of creativity. For me, that’s taken its usual poetic turn, but the watercolor has brought life, too. Because we’re stuck at home, we’ve looked closer at the world close at hand, watching and waiting as the magic of spring and the circles of life unfold in our 1/4 acre yard. We’ve been forced to slow down and open our eyes.
The past several weeks have been more of the old normal for me—working too hard on projects for my job and writing papers and studying to wrap up another semester at seminary. But I’m ready to stick a pin in all that and start to paint again.
Is it coping? Perhaps, but it is also exploring. Learning to know a place deeply enough to see it as it is. Pain, beauty, joy, anxiety, and anger swirl about in every breath these days, and we wait, brush in hand for what may happen next.