She leaves unadorned,
shorn of the year,
rising into rain and air,
to unfurl her fingers,
uncoil her hair.
She leaves unadorned,
shorn of the year,
rising into rain and air,
to unfurl her fingers,
uncoil her hair.
The winter solstice is the moment the sun halts its southern descent and hangs holding the horizon on the Tropic of Capricorn, the place of the fish-tailed goat. The word solstice, a noun, derives from Latin and means simply the Sun stands still and there she lingers. Located halfway between the equator and North Pole on the 44th parallel, southern declination is sharp. By Christmas Day, the sun climbs north by an astronomical minute, a fraction of a degree.
There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.
Is it of trees you tell, their months and virtues,
Or strange beasts that beset you,
Of birds that croak at you the Triple will?
Or of the Zodiac and how slow it turns
Below the Boreal Crown,
Prison to all true kings that ever reigned?
Water to water, ark again to ark,
From woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfalteringly
The never altered circuit of his fate,
Bringing twelve peers as witness
Both to his starry rise and starry fall.
Or is it of the Virgin’s silver beauty,
All fish below the thighs?
She in her left hand bears a leafy quince;
When, with her right hand she crooks a finger, smiling,
How many the King hold back?
Royally then he barters life for love.
Or of the undying snake from chaos hatched,
Whose coils contain the ocean,
Into whose chops with naked sword he springs,
Then in black water, tangled by the reeds,
Battles three days and nights,
To be spewed up beside her scalloped shore?
Much snow is falling, winds roar hollowly,
The owl hoots from the elder,
Fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
The log groans and confesses:
There is one story and one story only.
Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling,
Do not forget what flowers
The great boar trampled down in ivy time.
Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,
Her sea-blue eyes were wild
But nothing promised that is not performed.
Woolgathering once literally referred to the act of gathering loose tufts of wool caught on bushes and fences as sheep passed by… by mid-16th century the word woolgathering came to suggest the act of indulging in purposeless mind-wandering.
Gather wool: hands forever stiff with plucking tufts from stiles and bramble.
Many or most get lost at the beginning, wandering about to find wool, a flock of sheep. Sheep do not volunteer to be stripped of their riches. Gathering wool is the chaotic business of first drafts, of culling a beast from the herd. The bleater must be driven through a chute into a small stifling shed. (Having a dog bred and trained for this purpose helps, but weaving a collie into this extended analogy is awkward.)
With the bawling sheep secured in the shearing shed, there is a tussle to throttle the beast and pin it to the straw. I confess I’ve never sheared a sheep, though I’ve hacked many dreadful first drafts. I’ve seen it done. It’s hot, dirty, bloody business, both for the shearer and the sheep. Words must be brawled down like fleece into a heap of filthy wool.
When the fleece is finally stripped and spread across the shed floor, the trembling sheep is allowed to return to pasture, a naked rustic muse. The creature spent the winter grazing in muddy pasture, dragging her belly through weeds rife with burrs, dribbling poop down her backside. Fouled wool will never do for knitting, no.
The fleece must be cleaned. First it must be skirted and then it must be washed. Skirting is vile work, but it is a first draft. Print out the pages, spread them across the kitchen table, and scan for chunks of dried poop, clumps of hay, cockleburs and caked mud. (Don’t overthink, we are nowhere near killing our darlings.) Pick out the noxious bits. A snippet from the Craftsy website applies so literally:
“Yellowed or brittle sections should be removed. You can always set some aside and come back to it later to see if it can be salvaged for other uses.”
Compromised wool unsuited to the current piece at hand might be recycled into a poem. While it’s wise to preserve a first draft intact in the raw original form, I am guilty of continually overwriting while revising. Someday I’ll open a folder for every project and save each file version. Perhaps one day I’ll organize my sock drawer and spice cabinet as well.
Toss aside the nasty bits. Throw them out. Passive voice, “to be” verb formations, tense disagreements, blundering word choices, all go into the black plastic bag. Next, stuff all the skirted wool into a mesh bag to wash. At this stage in writing, one pauses to ruminate, considering on the structure and thesis of the entire project. I ponder in the shower.
Sheep wool is covered in grease called lanolin. This natural oil is excreted from the body of the sheep and saturates its coat. Due to this oil, sheep are waterproof and able to contentedly graze over many days of soaking rain. One needs to wash away excess lanolin. We come to divide the worthy wool, the words that will stand, from the dross.
Fill a tub with hot water and squirt in a generous measure of liquid soap. Do not use your own washing machine as this will only result in remorse. Go for a walk. St. Augustine wrote that solutions arrive when walking (solvitur ambulando) and he seems trustworthy. Let the wool absorb the water and soap, but don’t let the water cool or the lanolin will not wash away.
Repeat four or five more times. Rinse well. Spread the wool out flat to dry for several days. Print the piece of writing. Place it on the kitchen counter, near enough to scribble in the margins between peeling carrots and chopping them. Let it sit. Make notes. Re-read the paragraph you were so proud of and strike it. Reconsider and write “stet” in big block letters.
Once the wool is dry, comes teasing and carding. I have never done this. I am relying on the internet to help extend this metaphor as far as it will go. I do knit, however. I have observed other hardy handy souls carding wool and spinning it into yarn. Carding wool further cleans, straightens, and separates the fibers, hence the apt cliché of going over a page with a fine-tooth comb. It is here, finally, when you return to the work to restructure it, reinvent it, and rebuild it to be both worthy and whole.
After the wool is carded, it’s spun into yarn. This is an art unto itself, one that requires rhythm and tactile intelligence. This cannot be taught. This might be learned. Spinning is the nebulous writing gift talent. We will leave the spinner, a Clotho of the dark sisterly Moirai, to work her magic.
Only now and finally, is there a skein of yarn. Do not knit from this skein, as it will only tangle. Wind the yarn into a ball that will not ravel as it unrolls. As you wind, dream the words, hear their music, and smooth the stray strand back into the twisted fiber. Select the needles and note the pattern, count the stitches as you cast on.
Read the piece and read it again. Read until you know the words without reading them. Print another copy to leave at hand near the kitchen sink. Consider the root of each word; reconsider that phrase, chain by chain, stitch by stich, row by row, work through the yarn’s tension until the skein is dealt, the work ready to cast off. Bind it well.
The winter rains finally arrived on Thanksgiving with the full moon. Rain slanted sideways blowing in sheets, gusts bowed the trees and swung the long metal chords of the wind chimes to smash against the southern plate window. This is the hard cold rain that smells of snow, the hard gray sky indistinguishable from the black streaming streets, dark shadows of fir standing sentry. The sun’s gone south. The moon is waning.
American Thanksgiving is observed on the fourth Thursday in November. In English, Thursday derives from “Thor’s Day,” the day of thunder in German and Old English, Jupiter (or Jove’s) day in Latin, with ancient Greeks naming it hemera Dios, the day of Zeus. (The Hindi name for Thursday is Guruwar, which might be related to the god Vishnu, but I will withhold further presumption as I actually don’t have a clue.)
Thursday, the day of the sky god, a day of feasting and football. Zeus rules Thunder, Lightning, Weather, Air, Eagle, Bull, Oak, Olive, Lion and Wolf.
The Thanksgiving morning newspaper was slight compared to the newsprint that arrived inside: flyers and inserts advertising Black Friday sales and stores that would open at 2 PM.
The Dallas Cowboys always play a football game on Thanksgiving. Their symbol is a star. I was there on Thanksgiving once, in Cowboy stadium (now renamed AT&T) to watch the Cowboys play the Seattle Seahawks, the closest thing I have to a home pro-football team.
When I walked Dad’s dog, Ben, Saturday-after-Thanksgiving through the affluent yet middle-class streets I grew up in, women strode through their yards inflating Christmas figures arranged on the front lawns, frowning as they hung strings of lights in shrubs. Men balanced on ladders and cursed enthusiastically. Ben growled at the life-size effigies of Swiss Mountain dogs in Santa hats as we passed. I wondered if the giant Frosty the Snowman figure would be exhausted and deflated by solstice. Thanksgiving came early this year.
I finally sorted through the last remnants of food from Thanksgiving week today: whipped cream languishing next to a blackened half-avocado, wild rice forgotten in a yogurt container, bits of local Chanterelles fermenting now in clotted cream and cold pappardelle. Advent begins December 2nd.
I watched a flock of wild turkeys spar as they pecked at windfall apples in the road.
It’s dark when I get up. This morning it was too early, too dark. Mercy squeezes under the bed to sleep. She sings like a whale sometimes when she wants me to get up; perhaps this morning she was merely dreaming. She stole my flannel robe from the foot of the bed and I had to parley a bit of chicken jerky for its safe return.
The kitchen lights above the stove warm a sheltered circle. I catch slivers of my reflection in the window as I give the dog her breakfast and drink my juice. The tea kettle I’d cleaned before Sunday’s dinner party is splattered again with last night’s sauteing. It is the kettle, I think, the kettle I miss most before I leave.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
—Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”
I saw Venus rising before the sun through the evergreens yesterday, before the fog floated up from the creek basin, burning white fire as the morning star.
Frost forms; fog forms so thick that visibility is limited to 50 yards until the sun gathers strength to burn away the veil. There was little rain this fall. The open ground is still packed hard, not yet softened down to mud.
When Mercy and I walk down the hill to the park, I wear canvas pants with reinforced knees and hiking boots. I scan for critters in our path while I counsel the dog, talking mostly so that cats and wild creatures know we’re coming. If they have any sense, they retreat. The crows call out when I close the gate; the quail stop to listen before withdrawing into the blackberry brier.
“She has a strong prey drive,” the veterinarian says, even though the vet hasn’t been wrenched and whiplashed when a deer bounds across the road and up into the stands of fir, an understatement. We go down to the hard-frost grass in the park as the sun melts the fog. I throw the tennis ball.
There’s a hoop left behind by some night dancer. I roll it along the ground and the dog chases the bouncing rim growling, uncertain how to take down the unfamiliar creature. She seizes the hoop finally and holds her head high on return, jumping through the empty space, first two legs, then four.