RABBINICAL LEGENDS: I-II
Simplicity Following in the Steps of Cunning
Note how smoke rises
Straight and plumb.
Never interrupt Him
To mention the Hittites.
Let the bushes overgrow
The margins of the pasture.
Cover your dead
Leave gaps between
To name your children.
When the moon is new
Look for the beginning of longing.
Cunning Following in the Steps of Simplicity
Pick berries when the dew is fresh;
In day's heat, place them on the tongue.
Instead of argument, offer her one.
Keep commonplace books; promise her
Fidelity; once in your life, pirouette.
In winter, walk on ice.
To see if fear returns: in summer
Dive completely under and think
Of drowning in a country lake.
Learn to whistle two notes: one harsh,
One clear; to calm yourself, breathe
Through your skin, thinking of horses.
When speaking, notice the sound of vowels.
When spring comes, be wholly willing
To touch a cow's udder,
To walk barefoot in the mire; dream
Of boats sailing on the bay, each one
A dancer; teach boy children
The beginnings of sadness, the practice
Of beauty. in the fall, if a barn
Burns jump in, do everything you can.
Remember that evening is wiser
Than morning, that mourning is the life
Beyond the body; glide softly there.
FINDING MY NAME IN THE BIBLE
Let me enjoy so much harmony;
I knew that inside that prophet's lamentations
God revealed His Old Testament side,
His words burning like fire.
My father died, my mother lingered in her bed;
A winter's day and I laid
Between their tombstones
Wishing snow were warm like eiderdown.
Praise the world to the Angel, not what's unsayable.
You can't impress him with lofty emotions; in the cosmos
that shapes his feelings, you're a mere novice. Therefore show him
some simply object formed from generation to generation
until it's truly our own.
—Rilke, from "The Ninth Elegy"
Looking westward through the porch screen,
White light from the full moon shivers
On snow crust, on a glaze over fields.
The silvered seconds, the whitéd minutes,
The wind-chimes euphony, the wavy-warped drifts
The attempt to capture that luring call ini the rising moon
Only to be jostled back beyond repeals….
Maybe it is simply like tipping the head back,
Eyes rising, tracing the pale-pearl flush over head,
Untouched, skeletal, almost fibrous in its network
Across the sky of dark-blue drape, a mysterious beauty
That promises what with grace we must become:
Marginal angels, immortal transients, fresh tracing
Of that lost beginning grafted to the sweetest words.
From "Spots of Time and Other Fugitive Pieces,"
-XI- THE SNOW ROPE
She said it reminded her of a blizzard from 1940. My mother, that November day in 1952, the day she talked to Jesus on the phone. He called and she answered.
It came down hard and fast with minor warning. Enough of an early warning, though, to send the school buses out late morning with the farm kids. November damp then turning cold and winds from the northwest.
She was recalling the Armistice Day Blizzard, November 11, 1940, which started mild enough. It was hunting season and duck hunters were on the lakes and rivers and sloughs. There was another a few months later, March 1941. People died, a "fair" number.
More white and then more white again and then such whiteness that every landmark disappears in the "white out." Pipes freeze, farm animals suffer. Black and white pictures do it justice, more so I believe than color which is less chilling, less dramatic.
At my grandfather's farm, he had already rigged what he called his "snow ropes." From the porch of the house he had rigged ropes attached to metal fence posts driven into the ground. Hand-holding the ropes, he could make his way along those spidery-web ropes to the garage, the barn, the chicken coup, the pig pen, and to the front road and the mail box. And back again like geometry.
If every usual landmark disappears in the "white out," well, hand-hold-by-hand-hold the snow ropes prevent getting lost and wandering off in who knows what direction only to freeze and be found come spring. It's happened. There are pictures and more pictures: drifts as high as telephone lines, a hump of snow on a road-way and underneath a car.
It's a farmer's tip on how to survive a blizzard. The snow ropes and covering the windows at night with towels or rags stuffed in cracks underneath doors to conserve the heat. It works while outside wind blows and howls, and cracks its jowls.
On this day, then, those orange buses had left town with the school children, a good dozen buses or more out into the country with the school children grades 1-12, the buses beetling their way slowly along. One-by-one the drivers on their usual routes and my own father one of the usual drivers and another, Russell. The country roads were already drifting; the front tires would hit a drift with a heavy "whumpf," and more snow would fly. On his route, my father always remembered, a bundled mother or father would be standing at the end of the farm house lane, near the mail box, ready to collect children and herd them, like chicks, back to the farm house, hands clutching the snow rope.
And wind, 35 miles per hour or more, blowing horizontal snow, ground blizzards.
It's an oddity, though: The term blizzard once meant cannon shots or musket fire, volley-after-volley. Except in Iowa, then, 1870 or so, an enterprising journalist used the term to describe a snow storm. Imagine, then, white powdery snow, dry snow that stings, and wind chill and, well, stay indoors, stay safe, silly not to. Etymology, though, obscure, more or less onomatopoeic, sound imitative, a hard winter—blizzard.
It dawns on me for the moment that I've been blundering along here--without knowing why. My imagination owns an interest in what I've been writing but the interest alone has not prevented the blundering, the wandering. It can be odd.
I've studied metaphysics, meta ta physika, "after the things of nature," philosophy, theology, and as Aristotle referenced the business, "sometimes wisdom." Hume, well, his occasional use of the term: "excessively subtle." Kant? A priori speculation.
In this blundering, however, I'm not interested in reviewing classical philosophy or any kind of philosophy with words like "ontology."
I'm interested in "snow ropes" and, well, mysticism and religious language. The mystic says, that "God is a blinding light." Merely to say that "God is above" is interesting but does not help; "God is a desert," on the other hand, well that sends us scurrying into the paradoxes of faith, or the mysteries of faith. God is a like a blizzard? That might take study, it is fearfully apocalyptic.
It's a metaphor, you see, a "snow rope," and one feels intensely that it is so. And one feels we're not talking nonsense although the skeptic down the street might think so. The point here is that without this metaphorical experience we likely would be left with psychological curiosities.
About the blundering, though: Blundering into this metaphor is serious business; it's survival of a kind. There's something to it that discloses the nature of reality but if I handle it properly it can be revelatory. The picture, again, the image: white blinding snow, wind, cold, and a man or a woman grasping a "snow rope." Still blundering along, say, on the way to the the barn to toss down fodder to the milk cows, fodder stored in a hay mow, silage, too. Chores, you see. And then back to that farm house, warm and safe and even cheerful, a kitchen clock radio playing 1950s music, news on the hour, weather. But also a could have been, a could have been lost without that snow rope.
Metaphor as survival?
Russell was not only a bus driver but owned a service station, a gas station, and a bulk oil business. He would drive those country farm roads with his truck and fill the oil burning tanks for farmers, fuel oil to heat their homes, machine sheds. Business would boom during a blizzard and Russell would risk it, a samaritan sort of thing with just a bit more added to the bill, the surcharge.
A good man, though, not given to drink or swearing, and after the war, married, although not blessed with children.
One wonders about that: A child newly-born will reach out and grasp an extended finger, strength belying, holding on tight. Place a finger on an infant's open palm and that child grasps and can almost be lifted up, that infant's version of Chinese handcuffs. Fingers fan outward and then close. Instinct, the physician might say; it's trust, the metaphysician might say. Both are strong, but instinct is too raw, too blunt, less capable, less dependable. I'll take the metaphysics.
And so some lack of patience on his part that day, a desire to hurry along, back to town, and business, the surcharge. The child at the end of the driveway, the farm house barely in sight from the end of the driveway, a mere one-fifth of a mile but straight. Common sense and thus no need on Russell's part to walk the child the distance; less his problem and more the problem of the child's parents.
He could have, though, he could have, the child's mittened hand grasping his, strength belying, trust.
And so she blunders along and alone, red winter coat, muffler, snow boots, along and alone, thinkingly toward the farm house but the blizzard intensifies, more wind, more blowing snow, white-out, stinging face and eyes, and lost with no landmarks. How long she must have stood there before striking out in some direction.
And some time passes before that farm wife / mother looks out the kitchen window toward the country road and the one-fifth of a mile farm "lane." She sees nothing but white, blowing snow, nothing. And dashes out herself into the blizzard, and cold, and despairing.
A call goes out and farm men and town men gather, including Russell. Trucks are parked incrementally along the country road as the men begin their search along the ditches and fence lines, calling out. At the farm place, they rope themselves together, twenty-five or so feet apart and search the farm woods, the boundaries, out into the fields, looking, hoping for some sign of that red winter coat. Calling out: "Anything?" While time passes desperately. What could be worse than this except a child fallen down an abandoned well? I have a poem about that.
And then back to the farm place and more searching the outbuildings, for someone lost, for someone then found. For all that time, huddled in the barn, a close corner, straw for a blanket, a pair of barn cats for company. My father found her. He said he reached out an ungloved hand. She grasped his finger, and it's the same picture, but an opportunity offered.
Trust. Metaphysics. Metaphor as survival.
As it was, she, too, had blundered her way along, blundered into that snow rope connected to the farm house and the barn, had turned, though, to the barn and not the farm home. Even so....
I was six years old; the girl in the red winter coat a grade school classmate. Something there was in that, however, that I could understand more personally, the farm girl seated at the desk just in front of mine, and Martha, her name. More personal then when the phone rang and my mother answered. Her shoulders sagged with relief and warm tears tracked their way down her cheeks. "Thank you," she said, and hung up.
So, blizzards, a lost and a found farm child, Martha in a red snow coat, snow ropes and metaphors which we blunder into and if we hold on and handhold-by-handhold and trusting make our way along to safety, and when the phone rings we come to know who was on the phone, and a mother's response that it was Jesus.
Daniel James Sundahl is Emeritus Professor in English and American Studies at Hillsdale College where he taught for thirty-three years.