new year, sharp song

Posted by on January 13, 2016

Pulling up a sheet of ice © 2016 Julia Mason Wickes.

Pulling up a sheet of ice © 2016 Julia Mason Wickes.


by R. S. Thomas

I choose white, but with
Red on it, like the snow
In winter with its few
Holly berries and the one

Robin, that is a fire
To warm by and like Christ
Comes to us in his weakness,
But with a sharp song.

* * *

We had no snow in the days surrounding Christmas but rather torrential rain, followed by historically unprecedented flooding in nearby areas. Occasionally we have woken up to frost in the morning beginning in late fall. When the first frost arrived, it snapped our unsuspecting lawn into a perfect, rigid brown replica of its plump summer self. Since then it has withered and matted down, and morning frost has been semi-regular, with long stretches of milder weather. But only now, as I write this, is a slushy, wet snow finally making its appearance–yet not enough to stick and cover everything in white.

The darkish blue that I painted our living room three years ago has worn on me at long last and I find myself contemplating white indoors as well. Our blue living room seems cloying to me now, especially in the evening when it feels like a cobalt bottle that might be inhabited by a whimsical mouse family, about to trim their Christmas tree. No amount of lamplight seems to brighten this dark blue room at night. As for the rest of our house, the white trim and generic creamy tan has been marred and sullied by three years of kids’ finger prints and knocking about. I abandoned the dream of a white Christmas but I am persisting in the dream of a whiter, brighter interior. Let the painting commence.

Meanwhile, I hear a voice coming from somewhere in the vicinity of the Apartment Therapy website saying that white walls are so Scandi, and I fear that my attraction to the idea springs from a too impressionable openness to images flipping perpetually off the griddle of Pinterest. I carry catalogs from Pottery Barn, along with the Athleta and Sundance nonsense, straight from the mailbox to the recycling bin, trying to resist being mindlessly swayed by advertising. But with advertising as ubiquitous as air and water I fear that the images seep into my system and spawn ideas in my head that present themselves as personal and original, but are not.

I am reflecting on what the year of 2015 has contained, even while I cannot believe it is over. It has been a sort of nose-to-the-grindstone year, as years go, and I cannot help but wonder, as I reflect on growing older, if this is just the reality of adulthood and parenthood finally sinking in. Life is work, routine, consistency, endurance, and loyalty–the willingness to eschew comfort whenever necessary, which is often. Some evenings I must give up a normal bedtime for cleaning the kitchen, doing laundry, and making lunches for the next day. And that is no excuse for not flossing my teeth. Maybe this is the secret that all seasoned, functional adults eventually learn. As my loyal and antiquated dad always said, drawing from his cache of platitudes from a rural Georgia upbringing– you’ve gotta keep on keeping on.

2015 was an in-your-face type of year with the emergence of in-your-face public personalities like Donald Trump and in-your-face issues of racism, shootings, terrorism, refugees, and gun control. As we were driving back home from Thanksgiving through the now brownish world of approaching winter, we drove into Nashville and past a series of billboards for a gun store. However, instead of projecting a woodsy, camouflage, army surplus motif as one might expect, these advertisements were graphically spiffy and relatively slick, even vaguely sexy. One of them pictured a woman’s leather handbag with a gun peeking out of a zippered pocket. The caption read: “The ultimate accessory.” Caught off guard by this smug mash-up of guns and fashion between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I felt an initial wave of disgust followed by a numb rigidity, like our lawn caught by the first frost. For such a billboard to exist I must be sharing the highway (gee, the traffic is terrific!) with mad people.

When I am not feeling totally bewildered by American culture reaching new lows, I have a nagging concern that I might not be adequately bewildered. Maybe things I perceive as healthy-enough might be sick, and the things I perceive as normal-enough might be perverse. If the color I decide to paint my house has been unconsciously pre-determined by a design team of twenty-nine year-olds at Urban Outfitters, anything is possible. To thaw myself, to grasp at some clarity in my cloudy thinking, I sometimes take refuge in literature. In my mind I am crouching behind our pitifully crinkled paperback copy of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. I sound the alarm: “We’ve become a dis-Utopian society of amoral sub-humanoids as predicted by shrewd novelists of the twentieth century!” But I am told that in Pottery Barn, no one can hear you scream.

Sometime during my teenage years I remember hearing a sermon in church about the parable in which Christ compares the kingdom of Heaven to a tree that birds come and nest in. I had always thought of birds as de facto good– and of course trees are good as well. So the image of birds in trees seemed entirely nice. But this preacher overturned that. The tree was good but the birds were bad–invasive–like buzzards perhaps. The tree represented the church, and the buzzards took shelter there. I remember later puzzling over the parable of the leaven in the lump. Was the leaven good or was it bad? Because it seemed important to know, given its power. A bad apple can ruin the bunch; a little leaven can leaven the lump. It would appear that even a little of something–whether a welcome force of leavening or the unwelcome one of corruption–can spread and multiply, conquering and converting the substance of everything in its path.

In mid-December I pulled out a coat that I had not worn for a year and discovered it had a little plastic bottle of holy water from last January’s Theophany service. My first grader seized upon the bottle because for some reason she loves those little plastic bottles of holy water. She immediately ran around the house and started taking gleeful sips. My first impulse was to stop her–that water was nearly a year old–let the houseplants have it! But my husband just said, “It’s holy water.” I decided to let it go, to let concrete faith win the day over abstract doubt. I work at the school that my daughters attend. One day, a few days later, from a third story window at the school, I happened to see my daughter dancing around on the pavement at recess below. Unknown to me, she had brought the bottle of holy water to school and was now pulling it out of her pocket, showing it off to her classmates. Her school friends, I have reason to believe, have not the faintest notion of such a thing as holy water, and were probably totally bemused by this spectacle. Que sera sera.

Theophany just came and went again– the celebration of Christ’s baptism. It is beautiful, and somehow makes sense, following Christmas. However, its water-centric theme coming uncannily in January always makes me shiver a little. In the hymns we sing about how Jesus, dipping into the stream for baptism, sanctified the water he touched, and that water flowed out and sanctified all the water in the world. Molecules blessing molecules; leaven leavening the lump. At church we received more of those little bottles of holy water, like party favors from a wedding. This year I will try not to let them just sit around gathering dust, forgotten in jacket pockets, caught somewhere between the too-special and the negligible. Maybe finding a way to put them to good use will be my idiosyncratic New Year’s resolution.

Meanwhile, like everyone else around the New Year, I cannot resist thinking about exercise and healthy eating, and, like the mindless hoards, have contributed my quota of clicks to the click-bait articles about refined sugar and the like. I found a 5k to sign up for; I bought some long sleeve activewear tops on clearance at Target. I think it is safe to say that I am in no danger of becoming too idiosyncratic or counter cultural in 2016.

So, look for me in 2016, against my better judgment, occasionally dabbling in the We Love to Hate Donald Trump Club, which, I fear, might position me too close to the sphere of his destructive energy. What if loving and hating Donal Trump is all of one piece– somehow part and parcel of the same sick fascination? (I appreciated reading this insightful cultural critique exploring the phenomenon of his popularity–recommended reading.)

It would be far safer to live on a pillar in the middle of the desert, like St. Symeon the Stylite, or eat honey and locusts, wearing animal skins, like John the Baptist. But since that is not going to happen any time soon for me, I will continue traveling the broad road of Pinterest inspired home decor, Target clearance racks, Apartment Therapy diy tutorials, and whatever the hell people want to ping me with on Facebook, all to the accompaniment of presidential election noise. The buzzards will be heavy on the branches; the snow’s whiteness will be beautiful (but morally ambiguous). The jaws of King Herod will remain open, like alligators in the lagoon over which we might someday dangle. But still Christ is born. The robin’s sharp song will sound out above our cacophonous moments. And the little bit of leaven will keep working its way through the lump. The water–blessed and blessing–will continue its outward flow into all the world.

{For more Poetry Wednesday visit I AM HOPE. Amber and I plan to blog regularly again on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month, with Poetry Wednesday coming first, followed by a photography post. This month’s theme is Winter.}

  1. A M B E R
    January 14, 2016

    Oh Julia, you–as usual–have such a way with words!! "The buzzards will be heavy on the branches; the snow's whiteness will be beautiful (but morally ambiguous). The jaws of King Herod will remain open, like alligators in the lagoon over which we might someday dangle. But still Christ is born." It is a pleasure getting to read your blog again!

  2. Evelina
    January 22, 2016

    Hey hey! Happy to 'hear' you again!