Male hairy woodpecker

When I pulled into the faculty parking lot at Curry College this morning, I wasn’t surprised to see a male hairy woodpecker clinging to a nearby tree, as last week I’d seen the holes he’d hammered. Sometimes birds reveal themselves directly, and other times they reveal themselves by what they leave behind.

Here be woodpeckers

This particular hairy woodpecker wasn’t shy, continuing to cling to his tree while I rolled down my car window and took a picture from the driver seat, using my car as an impromptu bird-blind. (I can tell this fellow is a male by the red spot on the back of his head, and I can tell he’s a hairy rather than downy woodpecker because his bill is as long as his head is wide: a downy’s bill isn’t nearly as long.)

Only after I’d gotten out of my car did the woodpecker startle and fly, scolding me with emphatic call-notes: “Peeeek! Peeeek!” Now that I know who’s been drilling the trees by the faculty parking lot at Curry College, you can be sure I’ll be on the lookout for him and his mate.

Sunbathing

Our cats are indoor cats, so they spend a lot of time watching the weather from inside. Whoever designed our house must have had cats in mind, as many of the radiators are topped with broad wooden shelves that make perfect perches for both basking and bird-watching.

Afternoon birdwatching

Yesterday was a good day to be an indoor cat as it was cold and sunny: perfect for sunbathing in a warm and sheltered spot. I spent the day prepping classes and grading, so like an indoor cat I spent most of the day inside looking out. When you stay inside on a cold and sunny day, you can trick yourself into thinking it’s warmer than it is, summer right around the corner rather than frozen in its tracks.

I sometimes wonder what the cats make of the snow piles that impede their window views in winter and then gradually recede in spring. Can the cats sense the cold through the glass, or is even their imagined sense of the world outside climate controlled?

Something green and growing

Temperatures stayed above freezing for much of last week, so the snow pack is gradually shrinking, with patches of bare ground appearing on the edges. We saw these brave perennials starting to sprout from a sheltered spot alongside a building in Waltham yesterday…but in our yard here in Newton, the snow is still knee-deep, with an additional inch or two of fresh snow (enough for Boston to break its record for the snowiest season on record) falling last night.

Artificial flowers in snow bank

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Since it will be weeks, at least, until most of us see tulips or daffodils blooming in our still-buried gardens, some folks are taking matters in their own hands, sticking cut or even artificial flowers in the snow banks in front of their houses: a welcome spot of color. When you can’t enjoy the real thing, a reasonable facsimile will have to do.

Cut daffodils in snow bank

Rain slicked

Every morning, I follow the same basic routine: a daily liturgy that involves taking the beagle out and in, loading the dishwasher, taking out the trash and recyclables, cleaning the kitchen litter box, and filling various food and water bowls. It takes me about an hour and fifteen minutes to do these mundane chores, and I do them every day: weekdays, weekends, days when I feel like it, and days when I don’t.

Skull

Because I’ve repeated this same set of chores so many times, I’ve streamlined the process. I don’t do these tasks willy-nilly; instead, I do them in the same order every day, one task following the next like a wheel rolling into a well-worn track. Because my body knows exactly what it needs to do, I don’t have to think about what comes next: I don’t have to think about anything at all. When I set my feet on the floor, they know where to take me.

Wall at Central Square

I’ve come to see my morning routine as its own kind of meditation. When I lived in the Zen Center, I had a different sort of morning routine that involved bowing, chanting, and sitting rather than dish-washing, litter box cleaning, and bowl-filling. When the Zen Center wake-up bell rang, you stumbled out of bed and into the Dharma room, and practice happened whether you were properly awake or not. Because you’d bowed, chanted, and sat so many times before, your body knew how to complete these actions whether or not your mind really “wanted” to.

Wall at Cenral Square

To many, this might sound like the epitome of mindless practice: you just go through the motions whether you feel like it or not, as mindless as any automaton. We live in a culture of emotion that believes the heart is the highest authority, so it’s downright criminal (or worse, hypocritical) to do something when your “heart isn’t in it.” But Zen isn’t a way of the heart; it lives even deeper in the body, down in the rooted tangle of the gut. Anyone who’s lived in a Zen Center knows that following a mindless routine is the way to mindfulness: because you don’t have anything to do but show up, your mind is free to pay attention without equivocation.

The Wall at Central Square

C.S. Lewis famously argued that the routine monotony of liturgy is what makes it a transcendent experience. Only when your body and mind are trained by the predictable repetition of a church service is your spirit free to commune:

Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best — if you like, it “works” best — when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.

ZEN

When I’m immersed in the routine of dish-washing, litter box cleaning, and bowl-filling, my mind feels free and unfettered, free to wander where it will. An entirely ordinary but profoundly satisfying kind of peace arises when you don’t have to wonder what comes next: you just do your job. In the evening, I repeat a routine that complements my morning chores, taking the beagle out and in, emptying the dogs’ water bowls, and mopping the floor. There are moments when I’m leading the beagle to or from the dog pen when I wonder whether I was a farmer in a past life, the simple routine of animal husbandry—food and water in, waste out—feeling both familiar and reassuring.

No comp

I’m currently reading Brad Kessler’s Goat Song, a nonfiction narrative about the pastoral joys of goat-tending and cheese-making. I’ve never tended goats or made cheese, but what Kessler says about his experience of goat-milking sounds so akin to my experience tending a menagerie of pets, I suspect only the details of our respective practices differ:

Maybe it’s just the routine, the same objects in the same place (the wipes, the teat dip, the feed bucket, the scoop). The smallest change upsets the balance; the repetition builds a kind of faith (milk stand, hoof trimmers, hay knife, stool). Rote is the nature of prayer. Incantation is repetition. Saying and doing the same thing over and over until entranced. Ritualizing the same physical motion with your body as Yogis do. My movements here on this milk stand are a kind of davening, a morning prayer with goat.

After dark

“Rote is the nature of prayer”: this is a line I could live and die by, a mantra truer to my lived experience than any creed. Every day, the goats need to be milked; every day, the dishes need to be washed, the litter boxes need to be cleaned, and the water bowls need to be filled. Your life isn’t what happens before and after you’ve done your chores; instead, your chores are your life. Only after these tasks have become routine can you settle into the comfortable monotony that is prayer.

Out of the snowpack

Inch by inch, we’re reclaiming our yard from winter’s occupation. Yesterday a desk-sized slab of ice slid off our roof, taking part of the gutter with it; the day before that, an avalanche of roof-snow tore a cable from its mooring on the side of our house. Considering the damage many of our neighbors and colleagues have suffered–collapsed drywall ceilings, peeling paint, and warped kitchen cabinets, all from roof leaks caused by ice dams–J and I have gotten off easy, with only a bit of indoor dripping and seeping.

Overhang

Yesterday J and I walked to lunch, and shoveled sidewalks were bare…but those sidewalks that hadn’t been shoveled were treacherous, with alternating patches of ankle-twisting snowdrifts and slippery-as-sin ice patches slicked with snow melt. The most reliable place for pedestrians to walk is still (unfortunately) the street, turning a simple lunchtime walk into a game of chicken with passing motorists.

In the afternoon, I drove to Lexington to stock up on office supplies, and the town center was well-shoveled, with wide, clear sidewalks. It was sunny and mild, with temperatures in the mid-50s, and anyone who didn’t need to be inside was outside, walking. After so many weeks of snowstorms and cabin fever, it felt like an unheard luxury simply to walk outside, reclaiming the cleared sidewalks as our own.

The top photo shows our formerly-buried patio table and chairs emerging from the melting snow, and the second is the last photo I took of the overhanging roof-glacier that hung over our back door before it fell.

Buried shopping cart

The forecast calls for daytime highs in the 40s all this week, which means we’re beginning to see buried things surfacing out of the snow. It will be weeks before we see our lawn, but the top of our backyard birdbath has emerged, and in a nearby parking lot I saw the edge of a shopping cart peeking out of a head-high snow pile: the last place, presumably, a snowplow had pushed it.

Plowed pallet emerges from snowbanks

People often talk about how pretty snow is, and that’s true when it’s fresh-fallen and white. These days, however, the salt-blanched roads are lined with exhaust-blackened snowdrifts that have hardened and eroded into irregularly jagged shapes, more like sedimentary stone than anything akin to water. Like swords from a stone, all manner of random things are surfacing from beneath the snow: plow-battered pallets, smashed trash cans, and broken and uprooted park benches.

Stone wall emerges from melting snow

Spring is coming, the warmer temperatures and lengthening days suggest…but first we have to weather an awkward adolescence where the snow is ugly and ice-bottomed puddles are more treacherous than ice or snow alone. On Saturday, I ventured to Home Depot in search of ice melt, and everyone else in the store seemed to have the same idea, stockpiling what we hope is our last stash of the stuff. On the drive home, there was a mild traffic jam as a queue of cars at a popular car-wash snaked into the street: as reliable a sign of spring as any other.

New bathroom bud

The peace lily in my bathroom has sent up a tightly rolled bud, as it does every March and September: the two times of year when the hours of available daylight suggest “spring.” It will be a long time before any flowers bloom outside–our snowdrops are still buried in a head-high pile of snow, and I’ve abandoned all hope for crocuses–but it’s heartening that even a potted plant can sense the eventual arrival of spring.

Circles in snow

I’ve been around the sun enough times to know how New Englanders cherish even the smallest signs of spring. Our backyard cardinals have been singing in the gradually brightening mornings, it’s still light after 5:00 pm, and we can once again see the top of our backyard birdbath above the shrinking and settling snowpack. Last night we got a couple inches of new snow, but it was sloppy mix of ice and rain: the sludgy stuff that falls in autumn and spring, when temperatures are volatile.

Venusvine with stones, snow, and fog

Sometimes during these tenuous in-between days, I wonder how prehistoric humans handled those early winters before the sequence of seasons was a known, predictable thing. Before calendars tracked the pattern of the seasons, did those early humans give up all hope of winter ever ending? Even a potted plant somehow counts the hours of available sunlight, and even backyard birds know when to sing in spring. We humans, though, rely upon our big, ponderous brains, which equivocate on this and other important matters.

Snowy field with two hearts

In March, we humans waver in our hopes, uncertain whether spring will ever come. We doubt and we question, our fluctuating moods as indecisive as weather. But both the plants and birds know the light is lengthening and the season shifting, snow gradually giving way to sun as the earth leans into another turn. While we humans waver and wonder, the birds and plants simply know.

Apart from the peace lily at the top of this post, today’s photos come from a January trip to the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, when the snow was as dense and sludgy as today’s.

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