Tijeras, NM. I have moved to a home in the mountains with my wife, and we are the new neighbors in an old gathering of life stitched together into the tapestry of the Cibola National Forest. It has been a brief but warm acquaintance thus far, my daily walks the main form of our introduction to one another. On the drive up to our house, the ponderosa pines and junipers rise with the road, forming a pine-paneled staircase of evergreen and red-stained bark. We arrived in the winter to our little cabin in time to watch winter’s ebb and flow across the mountains from our windows.
Today is the first of a new year. The snow has come to celebrate it, decorating the high places, which are visible from the pane of glass through which I watch the bitterly cold day. Suddenly the mountains shift pleasantly beneath their cloud cover, breaking through and shaking the gray’s trailing vestiges from their backs like happy dogs emerging from water. Their white heads shine sharply under the sun’s roaming beacon as if relishing the revelation of their unbending strength wrapped in winter’s crisp beauty. Their unveiling is for only a few moments before the peaks are once again plunged back into the clouds as another wave of snow musters itself and crashes again in perfect hush upon rock and needle.
The following morning will find the snow passed and the night’s freezing temperatures preserving yesterday’s snowy mold, poured out on the land. The morning is still young when I close the door and make my way up the drive to greet it. It is one of those instances where I glimpse nature’s momentary fullness and satisfaction at its being, every element performing its role to excellence, all playing its part to the next, joined into a harmonious whole.
In walking, I dip my feet into the winter’s current and share in the melody found there. Walking jolts murky impressions and stagnant feelings to the surface to be disturbed and stirred, often spilling them into the light of my attention where they may be named and known. Each step falls with the careless familiarity of a conversation between old friends.
But recently – without my realizing exactly when – that changed. My eyes now often fall unconsciously to the ground as I go, combing its face, as if searching for something lost in the winter morning’s light. Every evergreen I pass holds its portion of snow over my bent gaze. No line or feature of the swaying landscape lies neglected or missed beneath the snow’s patient brush. Many days remain before the sun will rouse itself to the task of picking the white from these branches with the warmth of its hand. Silence fills the space between snow underfoot and heaven above, punctuated only by the steady grind of my footstep behind me, nothing ahead but the blank canvas. The process of estrangement to an old relationship can be imperceptible – distance by steady degree. by the time the gulf is noticed, its mouth seems to yawn suddenly. In this manner walking has become alien to me, no longer a comfort, no more a friend.
I have endeavored to change this, to return to my first love. Part of each stride’s length is taken to outstrip these new doubts. But despite my intentions that morning, the length of a few steps was all the distance necessary for my thoughts to withdraw from the mountains and curve itself inward, driven by frustration, turning furious circles in my mind. Round and round, an enraged dog snapping at its own always retreating tail. The broader world’s unrest and conflict over the last several years has infected my soul. Pride’s rebuke has been quickly memorized by my tongue and is easily recognizable in my unconscious thoughts, the prayers already known by God without ever being offered.
Thank goodness I am not a spineless man who capitulates his integrity when met with hostility. What a wonder I am not foolish enough to fall prostrate before the small idol of our pathetic theology, facts used to justify ourselves and condemn our fellow men. Of course, I wish to “know” God. This isn’t about me. The remedy is wide and plain in my obsessive frustrations, and I take it daily now it seems. Meanwhile the narrow way – that which is required to practice well each day’s integrity – is lost to me and a stranger to my feet.
The sight of these habits are still in place. I am surrounded by examples of their daily satisfaction, as I walk amongst the trees and sky. The wind’s soft winter notes are still plucked. It pulls its fingers across these wintered ridgetops, drawing a whispered rush from the tall, brown grass and abandoned scraps of foliage, all dead but still clinging to dirt and scrub oak. It is a concert executed in the present. That its stay is short does not negate the gift of its having been, for it holds what all of my lifetime might not—a fleeting taste of an older, unbroken time, the gift of a forgotten harmony, returned in echo, remembered at last, renewing my heart’s hunger. Bygone seeds, enduringly dormant, stir deep within me at its concert, long entombed but still alive beneath my worries and strivings for control. It cuts through the constant, feverish sifting of the sea of my circumstances desperate to find a nugget of my will realized, a plan completed, the concrete justification to my unconscious conviction that in these things lie happiness.
The sun shines down exuberantly, pushing its way through the creaking, crossed rafters of the ponderosa pine branches to splash on the powdered, white world. Wherever the snow’s plane lays unbroken by track or tire, the wind has finely traced gentle sketches of its passing upon the snow’s surface, thin lines faintly seen from invisible points where its pencil fell.
This sight is lent for a moment to the wind not seen, a tactile answer to a faith’s desperate cry for sight of the same movement of hope to break the cold mercy of the long night. Larger patterns are set down irregularly alongside these wisping drawings, elegant as any calligraphy but deeper in the snow’s parchment. They were not uniform, the comings and goings of the forest’s nuthatch and mice and common raven to be read in their strange letters. The deep, dark green of the pine needles – that certain hue and beauty all their own – is etched more clearly by the load of snow resting on bent bough and limb.
These are the answers beauty lends to the question of our pain and evil. If all this splendor endures in a world broken, tested, and trampled by my self-absorption and insistence on conforming the world to my image, what might blossom from a world mended and a heart healed, relishing in the eternal image that has shone from the beginning, and allowing it to shape me? This is forgotten in the next instant.
I know what it is I forget because I still harbor memories as a child when I knew and was contented by it. I saw the earth’s bounty and majesty. I marveled at it – if marvel means witnessing the living order and relishing its magic, a magic totally separate from myself. Morality then was a light found in all the world and not some terrible lamp stoked by my own small judgments.
Now older, my gait crunches beneath the same snow that once inspired in me such awe and hours of delight. Its drifting stands forested by the stately ponderosas’ formal lines, columned and orderly. The scarred, muted rouge of their trunks is adorned in the clean, fresh garb of that snow, each tree eager to glitter at the sun’s slightest touch. It is devastating to admit how little I routinely see of such days and of the embodiment of such ancient cycles.
This world has not changed. It still endures and shines, as when I was a boy, attuned to the sheer enormity of life overflowing and flooding everywhere I stepped. I have changed — without lasting roots, the rich soil of youth erodes under pride’s relentless pull on my heart.
In our celebrated era of knowledge we no longer know our ignorance. The fact remains the world was once new, unspoiled, and clean. The truth of that world existing once in time and space ought to split my pride from me as lightning splits a tree. In the company of tangible grace and wonder, my soul’s frame lies stark. The same sinful, twisted regard which has ruined the fullness of such an earth still flows in my veins, still springs up from my heart.
I am daily eager and active to set my hand to the task of killing the beauty given me to serve my own ends. I am always busy at the hypocrisy of denying death found within the dust used to mold my bones. It seems that when deprived of the miracle of life, my soul will turn to death rather than contrition. And my heart is sick from overindulging in this death, my eyes gone blind from their addiction to rehearsed sightlessness.
We are the blind, each calling out that which we are so sure we see. No longer aware that the sight we now marvel at is little more than one conceived and praised in our internal darkness, a dead cast of our face that has eyes but cannot see, ears but cannot hear. And what becomes of a world under such stewards like me?
It rots into an uprooted wasteland, a hateful root, all pulled up – no longer alive but not knowing it. Cast into a pit, our fading cries of blame cast at one another for our fall and arise from the edges. God does not revive all bones. Some valleys remain parched without even a wind to stir death’s victory there. The world’s expanse and beauty is flattened on these skeletons, reduced to lifeless images cast across the bleached bones and empty eyes like a film projected upon a screen. Their passing leaves the graveyard untouched and unstained by the miraculous visions cast there as if they had never come.
I know the truth of this because I find it in myself on this winter’s walk. There is one salient truth left me, as chilling as the snow beneath my boots and as irrefutable as the stone beneath the snow: though I may stand alive on this spot, I no longer live with the spirit or in the truth of the world that lives around me. I have become not only a stranger, but a death to it.
And so a small neighbor new to these surroundings and soon to be no more, forgotten, stops his steps in this frigid land long acquainted with itself to finally join the quiet of the morning. In the shaded mountains cloaked in winter’s blinding and brilliant death, I weep without sound. I await some hint of light to break through the thick walls of darkness which surround me, imprison me, raised by my own hand, braced and fed by my own blood. And this waiting, if done well, will last all my life. But if I have eyes to see, grace is found in this enduring. The sigh of creation is borne along still, unconcerned, carried on by the tops of the pines far overhead his small, frozen figure, tireless in its hurrying on to the resurrection of this wounded, slowly dying world.
May mercy remember us in our tiny worlds as they crumble before the advent of new life conceived in power, bursting with the glory we see in only glimmers now.
Image Credit: Photo by Katie Davis.