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Come Again in the Spring

Come Again in the Spring

Richard Kennedy

          Snow was on the ground. Old Hark was standing out to the side of his cabin, scattering handfuls of cracked corn and scratch to the birds all around him. Now and then he sniffed the air. It smelled like more snow was coming.

A solitary figure bundled in a great bearskin coat trudged along the forest path to the old man’s cabin.

          He stopped in front of the cabin and shifted a large ledger out from under his arm. The burly figure opened it to a page, looked at the cabin and then to the page again, and walked out toward the old man.

          “Good day,” said the stranger.

        1_CATERS_SNOWMAN_AND_BIRDS_01-768x512.jpg  “Howdy,” said Old Hark, brushing his hand on his coat. “Your face is easy, but I can’t recollect the name. We met?”

          “Not in any formal way,” said the stranger. “But I’ve passed this way before. Maybe you’ve caught a glimpse of me. I’m Death.”

          The old man straightened his back and held the feed bag a little closer to his chest.

          “Death, eh? Well, you got the wrong place.”

          “No,” Death said, opening the ledger. “You’re Old Hark, aren’t you?”

          “Maybe, and maybe not,” said Old Hark, turning his back and scattering a handful of feed.

          “Well, certainly you are,” Death said, taking a pen from his pocket. “It’s all right here in the book.”

          “Don’t give a dang what’s in the book,” said Old Hark. “I ain’t going. Come again in the spring.”

          Death sighed, and took the cap off the pen. “How tiresome, ” he said. “Everyone tries to put it off, and all it amounts to is making a little check mark after your name. He poised the pen above the book.

          Old Hark turned. “I ain’t afraid of you.”

          “No?” Death said, looking up.

          “Come again in the spring. I won’t hinder you none then. But you see all these birds? Come winter time, they depend on me to feed them. They naturally ought to fly south in the fall but don’t, reason that I been feeding ’em all winter since I was no bigger ‘an a skip bug. They’d die if I was gone – they ain’t real wintering birds. But you come back in the spring, and they’ll know I won’t be here next winter and have enough sense to go south.”

          “Oh, that wouldn’t do at all,” Death said. “The book is all made up in advance. Why, rescheduling you into the springtime would take a good week’s work. Erasures would have to be made, new entries, changes of address, causes of departure . . . very complicated, no trifling matter at all, I assure you. No, it really won’t do at all.”

          “Don’t know about that,” Old Hark said, “but I ain’t going.” He took a few steps away. Death followed him.

          “See here,” Death said persuasively, “you’re really getting quite old and feeble, you know, quite past the age I usually visit people.”

          “Ain’t going,” Old Hark said. Death saw that the old man was resolute, not at all in the correct state of mind for the business at hand. He considered that he might cause a tree to fall on the old man’s head. He consulted his book. Next to Old Hark’s name was written: “Means of departure: Quiet, gentle, peaceful.” So violence was out of the question.

death_note_notebook_by_emo_crayon-d6kg7ow.jpg          Death turned a page in the book and studied the entries. “Now, look,” Death said. “I can give you another day.  I can fit you in for tomorrow, but then you’ll have to come quietly, gently, and peacefully. Even so I’ll have to stay up half the night juggling these entries, but I’ll do it as a special favor. “

          “Not tomorrow, either,” said Old Hark. “Come again in the spring.”

          Death was getting impatient. “You’re so old now and so feeble and your memory is so shabby you won’t even remember me by then, and we’ll have to go through all this again. “

          “There ain’t nothing wrong with my memory.”

          “Isn’t there, now?”

          “It’s perfect.”

          Death smiled. “If you think so, let me make you a wager.”

          “Let’s hear it,” said Old Hark.

          “It’s this,” said Death. “Just so I can be sure you’ll remember me next spring, let’s make a test. If I can ask you a question about something that happened in your life and you can’t remember, then you must come with me tomorrow.

          “Agreed,” said Old Hark. “Ask away.”

          Death closed the ledger and put his pen away. He smiled again and asked, “On your second birthday, your mother baked up a special treat. What was it?” Then Death turned and walked off toward the forest path.

          “Good day, ” he called. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

          It began to snow. Old Hark returned to his cabin, kicked the snow off his boots and went inside. He put on some coffee to perking and sat back in his rocking chair. He sat there for hours, remembering many things, many smells, and tastes, and sounds, and people, but of course he couldn’t remember what his mother baked special on his second birthday.

          Some birds chirped outside the door. The snow had stopped. Old Hark got a handful of feed, opened the door and chucked it out. The birds made a fuss of noise, but just as Old Hark closed the door, he heard one chirp above and unlike any of the others, a very strange chirp.

          It sounded exactly as if one of the birds had said, “Plumcakes. “

          It snowed most of the night. Next morning, Old Hark made his rounds to the bird feeders and scattered plenty of feed. He got his shovel and a ladder out then and climbed up to shove some of the snow off the roof of the cabin.

          While he was up there, Death came around with his ledger under his arm. He stood next to the ladder and shouted out a cheery “Good morning!” Old Hark looked down. He put a finger to one of his nostrils, blew his nose

in the snow, and then said, “Plumcakes,” and turned back to his work.

          That was  a surprise for Death. He had spent half the night working on the book. He was tired, and now he was angry and was tempted to pull the ladder out from the old man. But he remembered the words in the book, “Quiet, gentle, peaceful,” and he got hold of himself.

          “Very good,” Death said. “I don’t think there’s one man in a thousand who could have remembered that far back. But of course it might have been luck. Perhaps you just made a guess at it.”

“l didn’t guess,” Old Hark said.

“But you couldn’t do it again,” Death said.

“I reckon I could.”

“Then just to be absolutely positive it wasn’t a guess,

let’s try it one more time.”

“One more time,” Hark agreed. “Ask away.”

“Very well,” said Death. “The question is this: On your first birthday, your mother picked some wild flowers and put them in your crib with you. What kind of flowers were they?” And he walked away up the forest path.

After clearing the roof, Old Hark took his shovel to work on some drift that was leaning onto his fence. Now and then he threw some feed out of his pocket to the birds that followed him about. They were singing and chirping around the fence, and as he finished up and headed back to the cabin, Old Hark heard in back of him an unusual chirp, loud and clear.

It sounded exactly as if one of the birds had said, “Buttercups. “

Next morning when Death came around, Old Hark was under his lean-to splitting wood.

“Good morning,” Death said lightly, although actually he was feeling grouchy because he had been up half the night fixing his book to fit the old man into a new place.

Old Hark spit on his hands and took a fresh grip on his splitting maul. “Buttercups,” he said, and swung the maul.

Death swallowed hard to keep from crying out. It was impossible. He would have liked to have Old Hark’s wedge jump up and crack his skull, but of course that wasn’t in the book. Slowly, Death got control of himself.

“Amazing,” Death said. “I can scarcely believe it. What a memory. I’m astounded, really I am. You don’t suppose you could possibly do that again? I hardly believe you could.”

Old Hark took a breath and leaned on the butt of his splitting maul. “I reckon I just might,” he said. “But supposing I do? Then you got to let me be all the way into next spring.”

“Agreed,” Death said. “Agreed. Then it’s a wager. One more question. If you can answer, then I won’t come again until next spring. If you can’t answer … well, then … Death made a check mark in the air.

“Ask away,” said Old Hark.

“The question is this,” said Death. “On the day you were born, when the midwife held you up in the air, what were the first words your father said?” Death cocked his head, smiled, and walked away.

After splitting the wood, Old Hark filled all the bird feeders and broke up the ice in the cistern. All the while he was paying close attention to the birds which always fluttered nearby, but he heard nothing out of the ordinary in their chirping. Then he went inside. He stoked up the fire, made coffee, took a nap and puttered with some harness. But every now and then he opened the door and threw out some feed, and listened carefully. just ordinary singing and chirping. He was feeling especially tired and went to bed early with no answer to the question.

Now the reason the birds could tell him nothing was this. Old Hark had been born in that very cabin, and generations of birds had known him and everything about him, and because of their love for the old man they had passed on many memories of him, and so they knew the answers to the other questions.

But on the day the old man was born, in the very bed in which he now lay, the window was closed and the curtain was drawn, so the birds knew nothing of what his father’s first words were upon seeing his newborn son. They could not help him.

Old Hark woke late, which wasn’t like him. His bones hurt, and he felt tired. It took him much longer than usual to get his chores done, and the wind seemed to chill him to the heart. Still, he listened carefully to the birds. They said nothing special. Early in the afternoon, without coffee or even a bite to cat, he undressed and got back into bed. He had never felt quite so tired in his life. Through his half-closed eyes, he watched the birds on his windowsill hopping about, but he was too tired even to crack the window a bit so he could hear them sing. Now and then he fell asleep.

Death knocked on the door in the late afternoon.

“Come in,” Old Hark whispered.

“Hello,” Death said, opening the door. Then he saw Old Hark laid out in the bed and understood at once that the old man had no answer to the question.

“Well, well,” Death said, taking a chair next to the old man’s bed and opening his book on his lap. “Now isn’t that’s more like it, yes indeed. Ha, ha. You old rascal, I’ve been up half the night again on your account, you know, but it’s quite all right now, yes indeed. It’s good to see you lying there so quiet and gentle and …”  Death glanced at the book. “ … so peaceful.”

Old Hark paid him no attention. He was watching the birds playing on the windowsill.

“Now,” said Death, taking out his pen. “I’ve managed to fit you in for sunset. Oh, you should appreciate that. It’s a choice spot, really. Very appropriate, very … fitting to the occasion, you know. Daylight ending, the sun going down, darkness coming on…. Ah, yes, a choice spot – we usually reserve it for poets.” Death ran a finger down the page. “Here we are,” he said cheerfully. He took the cap off his pen and moved to make a check mark after Old Hark’s name. Then he paused.

“0h, yes,” Death said. “It’s a formality, but I must ask you so as to make it all strictly legal. As I recall then, the question was this: On the day you were born, when the midwife held you up in the air, what were the first words your father said?”

But Old Hark had not even been listening. He was looking at the birds, and he said to Death, “Open the window.”

Death thrust his head forward and clutched at his pen.

“What did you say?”

“Let the birds sing.”

“NOOOOoooooooo!” Death bellowed. He flung his arms about hysterically, splattering ink, then screamed out again and fell off his chair in a fit. He got up in a rage and pitched his book through the window.

Birds flew in, singing. Death grabbed a handful of his coat front and threw himself out the window and went stumbling up the forest path.

Old Hark leaped out of bed and watched Death disappear into the forest. He was feeling much better. He put on a wool shirt and got some coffee to perking, then cut himself some cheese and bread. In a short time he figured out what all the commotion had been about.

Of course what it was, is this: Death had lost the wager and must leave Old Hark to live until spring, for his father’s first words on seeing his newborn son had been “Open the window! Let the birds sing!”

 

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Good at the End

Friday, January 13, 2012


This past Tuesday my niece Cristy, a nurse, locked herself in the bathroom of her Florida home. With my sister, Melanie out in the living room playing Clue with her seven-year-old son, Luke, Cristy killed herself. Both Luke and my sister Mel stood by and watched in helpless horror when the paramedics arrived and used the paddles that failed to shock Cristy’s abandoned body back to life. You, me, Cristy, Mel and Luke share a common thread … we deeply and intimately know suffering from the inside out.

It is that intimate knowing that ties us together. And it will continue to tie us together even when the thread sometimes seems pretty thin or we forget we’re even connected at all. Just because we forget that the air we breathe is all around us, doesn’t make the air any less present or real. And just because we might forget the love that powers the human heart, and let Wild Mind generate all kinds of crazy-shit fearful thinking temporarily blocking heart-awareness, doesn’t mean our hearts aren’t still continually connected and powered by love.

But it’s not JUST the suffering that is our common tie, of course. It is our commitment to work to relieve that suffering, both in ourselves and on behalf of others that insistently and persistently ties and connects us. Because suffering knows suffering, we share a deep, common intimacy. That’s just the way it is. And the way it will continue to be. 

I’m a firm believer in doing my best to open and receive the mirror-gifts the universe decides to send our way. The Universe has sent us each other. And for good reason. If you could see yourself through my eyes, you would wake up like I do, at 3AM most every night, smiling and ready to charge into the day. Viewing yourself through my eyes, you would see this incredibly courageous person, willing to do what so few other people in the world are not – willing to turn towards the beast of suffering and confront it head on. That is such a very, very rare quality in the world. While so many people are looking outside themselves and looking for and finding all the ways the world isn’t measuring up, turning their hearts and minds away from the essential shame so many of us deeply feel, you’re busy looking inside and doing your best to grapple with the demons you find continually springing to life in there. And you’re learning to befriend them. To welcome and embrace them as old familiar friends, as just part of the constellation of energies that make you who you uniquely are. It’s that willingness, to say what’s true for you and to continually grow into being able to discern and ask for what you want, from yourself and from others, that makes you a really rare human being – a truth-teller, willing to stare shame and shadow in the face and make them your bitch. In doing so, you become someone who can be trusted. And what you can be trusted to do in telling people the truth, is hang in there in the service of trying to relieve shame, relieve blame, relieve suffering. You are precisely the kind of person that any sane person would absolutely want in their life.

Below is a list of positive human qualities. Take a look at it. An honest look. How many of those qualities do you find showing up in yourself in any given week? An honest look has to have you checking off quite a few of those qualities. After you go through the list, simply realize that the opposite of many of those qualities also lives in you, is a part of you. They are simply part of what makes you, me, and everyone else … human. And we all deserve to be loved and forgiven for being human.

On this day I am honored to celebrate our humanity, our dark humanity and our light humanity, acknowledging and moving through this first cycle of Good at the Beginning, Good in the Middle, and Good at the End.

Love,
Mark

Positive Qualitities

Able

Eager

Kind

Rational

Accepting

Easy-going

Learning

Realistic

Accurate

Efficient

Leisurely

Reasonable

Adaptable

Empathic

Light-hearted

Reflective

Adventurous

Energetic

Likable

Relaxed

Affectionate

Enterprising

Logical

Reliable

Alert

Enthusiastic

Lovable

Reserved

Ambitious

Fair-minded

Loving

Resourceful

Artistic

Faithful

Mature

Responsible

Assertive

Fit

Merry

Robust

Broad-minded

Free

Mild

Sexy

Calm

Friendly

Moderate

Sincere

Capable

Fulfilled

Modest

Sociable

Candid

Funny

Natural

Special

Careful

Generous

Neat

Spontaneous

Caring

Gentle

Non-judgemental

Spunky

Cautious

Glad

Nurturing

Stable

Charming

Good-natured

Open-minded

Strong

Cheerful

Growing

Optimistic

Tactful

Childlike

Happy

Organized

Talented

Clear-thinking

Healthy

Original

Tenacious

Clever

Helpful

Outgoing

Thankful

Compassionate

Honest

Patient

Thorough

Competent

Hopeful

Peaceful

Tolerant

Confident

Humorous

Persevering

Trusting

Conscientious

Idealistic

Persistent

Trustworthy

Considerate

Imaginative

Pleasant

Understanding

Cooperative

Independent

Polite

Uninhibited

Courageous

Individualistic

Positive

Uniqu

Creative

Industrious

Practical

Versatile

Curious

Informal

Precise

Warm

Dependable

Ingenious

Progressive

Whole

Determined

Intelligent

Punctual

Witty

Dynamic

Inventive

Quiet

Zany 

Forgiving and Not Forgiving

Robert Karen

The Forgiving Self, pg. 1

                In one of the most famous photos to come out of the Vietnam War, a small girl is running naked down the road, with an expression of unimaginable terror, her clothes burned off and her body scorched by napalm. The man who coordinated the raid on this child’s village in June, 1972 was a twenty-four-year old U.S. Army helicopter pilot and operations officer named John Plummer. The day after the raid, Plummer saw the photo in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes and was devastated. Twenty-four years later Plummer told an Associated Press reporter: “It just knocked me to my knees. And that was when I knew I could never talk about this.” The guilt over the bombing raid had become a lonely torment. He suffered periodic nightmares that included the scene from the photo accompanied by the sounds of children screaming.

                The girl in the photo, Pham Thi Kim Phuc, survived seventeen operations, eventually relocated to Toronto, and became an occasional goodwill ambassador for UNESCO. In 1996 Plummer heard that Kim would be speaking at a Veterans Day observance in Washington, not far from his home.

                Kim’s speech included the following: “If I could talk face to face with the pilot who dropped the bombs, I would tell him we cannot change history, but we should try to do good things for the present …” Plummer, in the audience, wrote her a note: “I am that man,” and asked an officer to take it to her. At the end of the speech, he pushed through the crowd to reach her, and soon they were face to face. “She just opened her arms to me,” Plummer recounted. “I fell into her arms sobbing. All I could say is, ‘I’m so sorry. I’m just so sorry.’”

                “It’s all right,” Kim responded. “I forgive. I forgive.” Five months later, still connected by their peculiar history, the two were shown in an AP wirephoto, their heads touching, almost cheek to cheek, his arm around her. Both smiling with an almost incongruous delight, as if he had never ordered the raid that left her body scarred and in permanent pain and he did not live with recurrent nightmares.

                The need to be forgiven is a profound factor in our lives. The story of the pilot and the girl touches us because that need lives so strongly in us, and it is rare that we see it played out in such direct and dramatic form. And yet in our everyday lives we are touched by forgiveness and haunted by its lack in a myriad of small and often unnoticed ways. Can we be forgiven our insensitivity? Our cruelties? Our betrayals? Can we be forgiven for having critically, damagingly, let someone down? Can we be forgiven the things in us that feel so terrible we dare not speak them? The feelings of others contribute to how we define ourselves to ourselves and often it is through them, their tolerance, their perspective, their generosity, that we are able to forgive what had seemed unpardonable in us before.

Fighting the Good Fight

1. Commitment – We begin with a commitment to the relationship. We’ve agreed that it’s worth fighting for, literally. That means we’re willing to go through some hard times, and willing to struggle to resolve seemingly intractable conflicts. Any individual fight is not so dire, not so severe. We agree in advance to keep trying.

2. Fighting is an Art – Fighting is a creative act. It is part of the architecture of relationships, as individual as the two people involved. It is an intimate and passionate activity that individuals must practice and learn to do well together.

3. Fighting is Problem-Solving – A fight starts with someone’s pain. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the fight, the fact that either person is hurt and/or angry means that there is a problem to be solved, often healing wanting to happen.

4. No One Loses – The only way to build long term relationships is to fight for win/win solutions. If one person “loses” the fight, their pain will just turn up in the next fight, wanting to be resolved. Solutions to problems have to be found that work for both people.

5. No One Walks Away Forever – We agree to talk until we’re done, and we’re not done until both of us feel resolved. And we may take breaks as needed.

6. There Are Always Options – It’s easy to get boxed in by two bad alternatives. We can take the time to step back and bring our creativity to the conflict.

7. Go for the Heart – Whatever starts the fight may not be at the heart of the conflict. Half of a fight is often taken up with getting down to the real issues. We try to speak from our own feelings, and to speak as truthfully as possible about what has hurt us. Every statement that is deep and true is a gift to the other person. The real issues are easier to resolve than the false ones.

8. Listen Hard – When we’re hurt and angry it’s hard to listen. Every time we miss something important, some deep and true statement, it adds another layer of hurt, anger and confusion to the fight. Learning to listen well the first time is hard and takes lots of practice.

9. Agreements – Resolving a fight often involves first really listening to the other person’s pain, then apologizing if that is appropriate, and finally, making some kind of agreement that we will keep the situation from happening again. It is through these kinds of interactions that we build workable lives together. We may try out any number of ideas, some will fail, but it’s the process, the willingness to look for solutions, to try again, that secures the confidence to face future problems optimistically.

10. The Best of Ourselves – During a fight, we keep asking ourselves questions: Am I being honest? Am I getting hysterical? Am I being fair? Am I fighting about what really matters? Resolving a fight almost always calls on us to look at problems evenly, to think clearly, to bring imagination and humor into play. It is the testing ground of our honesty and compassion, the growing tip of our best selves.

Sarah Randolph, Whole Earth Review, Spring, 1993