Winter’s Wisdom

Every time I go outside since the frost came, I get a whiff of wood smoke in my nostrils. That hasn’t always happened. Much of my life was spent on an asphalt-covered sandbar, where cookie-cutter homes are heated by the oil that isn’t powering the SUVs parked alongside every curb. If we smiled fire in my youth, it meant that some kids set the weeds in the vacant lot ablaze again.

As a young man, I spent several years in the northern wastes, and I lived in much quieter places where wood stoves were the norm. This was before pellet stoves, mind you; folks had to split wood or hire someone to do the work. At nineteen, around the time when I periodically ran out of food, I also learned the value of an honest day’s work. A sixty-something year old man, a woodsman and farmer all his life, taught me to split wood – or tried, anyway.

Placing a thick log on the stump that was flatter than the frozen ground, he waved away the maul. “You just have to look and see where the grain is going,” he told me, “so you know which way the wood wants to go.” With a blur, the ax came off his shoulder and the log exploded, three pieces of firewood newly-born skittering across the ice. He handed me the ax. “You try.”

After carefully sizing up the piece of wood he placed on the stump for me, and testing the weight of the ax, I brought it crashing down with all the vigor of Bobby the Barbarian. Once it reached its mark, the blade came back up nearly as quickly, careening off the wood as if it were rubber instead. “You hit the knot,” he explained, pointing out the offending swirl. I peered closely, but my fifteen minutes’ experience didn’t show it as clearly as this man’s half-century or more.

The lesson was more about patience and observation than it ever was about splitting wood, although the wood did need cutting. The sharp smell of smoke on a bitter cold day always makes me think of that time, and of the other people I have known who brave living in chill places where a cheery fire is the first line of defense against an inhospitable winter.

Winter scares me, because it reminds me that if I don’t use the only gift I have – my mind – I won’t last in the natural world. It’s a good sort of fear, though. If one is aware that death is always a heartbeat away, it makes the living a bit more exciting. I can see why thrill seekers do crazy things – it’s because they have lost touch with that lesson and want to remember how precious life is.

Somehow I managed to get the same wisdom by trying to keep the wood stove full.

Feeding the Hungry: Paying it Forward

“The only thing I ask in return as that you do the same for someone else when you are in the position to do so.”

That’s what my first spiritual teacher told me, circa 1990, when she offered to feed me. I was a college student, living off campus and without a meal plan. Getting and holding a part-time job in an economically depressed area is tough for an unmotivated nineteen-year-old who thinks the world owes him something, so food was not always easy to come by. My teacher was not flush with cash by any means, but she was a priestess of the mother goddess through and through.

She explained to me that when she was a young adult, she had been in a position where food was hard to come by, and that someone had taken her under their wing and kept starvation at bay. I wasn’t exactly wasting away, but I survived on a lot of ramen. She told me that she would do the same for me as was done for her, with the same injunction attached: feed another person when I have the means and he or she does not.

I’m not the sort of person that jumps at the chance to give to charity: phone calls from good causes get the same brushoff as the ones trying to woo my vote or inform me about an “opportunity.” However, unless my wallet or larder is bare, I will do my very best to keep hunger from the people I know. I don’t have the resources to feed every hungry person in the world, but I have kept my promise, and passed its obligation on three times now.

My relationship with that teacher was volatile and emotional, a partnership both good and bad. Her lesson about connecting with, and feeding, a person in need is one that I will carry with me throughout my life.

Finding Tom

I always enjoy the workshops and rituals availed to me at Laurelin Retreat, but sometimes it’s the unscheduled times that are the most educational.

On a personal note, my family is having a housewarming party coming up, and because the owners of Laurelin would not be able to attend, I asked if they could give me what we’ve been asking for as a gift regardless: a stone, no smaller than two fists.

Laurelin is fifty-six acres of rolling woods and farmland, crisscrossed with stone walls that now or formerly marked arbitrary boundaries and, like any good New England soil, will yield two good crops of rock a year. There are a lot of stones at Laurelin, and finding the right one for my yard was probably going to take some doing.

Fortune smiled upon me by giving me a companion, Noodleman, who was in need of a Fool’s Errand to complete. My plan had been to supply any number of pictures and make this into a photojournal of our quest. However, I lost the camera immediately after returning home, finding it again in time for a party, only to have it vanish once again, so I don’t expect to be able to give that thousand-to-one ratio promised by pictures. It’s been a week and this post isn’t finished, so I’m just going to have to do this with words alone.

One of the things that’s nice about Laurelin is the plethora of stone walls. Any old agrarian area is going to have them, and central Vermont is no exception. Farmers and landsmen of all sorts learned the art of stacking irregular stones in such a way as to make sturdy boundaries between fields, both marking territory and relocating stones out of plow’s way. I’ve been trying to relearn those skills in the past few days with the stones I’ve been discovering in my compost pile.

None of the stone walls held my interest, and the searching up and down the various streams didn’t find a stone that called out an interest in moving to the Hudson Valley. Finally, we cleared our heads with a solid period of time sitting upon a soft carpet of moss, with no stones in reach.

When we did decide to return to camp, the first stone to catch my eye was perfect. It was sitting on a stone wall along the old road, its top half covered in moss that was populated by inch-long, rust hairs among the bright green carpet. It was in a dry area which was well-shaded, the types of conditions that are abundant in my yard, and particularly in the place where I’m cultivating my moss garden.

“His name is Tom,” Noodleman told me.

Fool’s Errand

I took a Fool’s Errand this weekend while I was attending Beltaine at Laurelin Retreat. A Fool’s Errand often has a specific task, but the way one goes about accomplishing the task is anything but linear.

I took along a companion for this Fool’s Errand, a youth whom I shall call Noodleman. Noodleman has a certain bubbling, mirthful chaos in his personality, and I am very curious if this trait is going to settle out as he becomes a man, or if he has the makings of a Fool.

We were searching for a stone and we didn’t look particularly hard for it. When we did find it, we ended up leaving the stone someplace where we promised each other we wouldn’t forget about it, and ended up returning by another way and forgot it just the same. The stone was not offended, for stones do best when permitted to watch and wait.

But I did take Noodleman’s measure as thoroughly as a priestess with a skein of yarn might. I learned about how his thoughts were organized in his head, and I carefully shared some of the mysteries of Foolishness to see how he would respond. Foolish mysteries tend to be right out there in the open, but they’re so fnordward-thinking that few people ever notice them. The natural Fool will intuitively understand the rules that a Fool lives by.

Not every Fool’s Errand that I have undertaken has been with a companion, and most of my companions are not, and never will be, Fools. As a “Mentor in Mayhem” (dubbed thus by a mother to be named later) I am thrilled if a Fool’s Errand can be a rite of passage and a journey of discovery like it was for Noodleman.

So is Noodleman a Fool? Only his hairdresser knows for sure.