All My Fresh Springs (Morning)
Three daybreaks in a row, I spot a long-necked snowy egret, a thing I’ve rarely seen on Ocracoke during crowded summers. I will see a fourth and a fifth before this week is out. I’m cycling on the sound side of this windy barrier island, 20–25 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina. I’m here in late winter, in time forthe run up to Vernal Equinox and to learn from the elegant waterfowl and her windswept empty beaches how to be and think and pray afresh—how to work and play in an uncluttered, unfettered manner.
She does what she does, the regal egret, with concentration in her solitude. Shifting from one webbed foot to another, legs submerged in shallow water, she does not acknowledge me in my slow stroll taking notes and pictures. I am also here to document observations, to interview World War II vets, locate out-of-print book titles at the Island’s library, and collect names of folks for future conversations. Way more than I can accomplish in one spring break. Madame Egret’s poise drives this home to me.
I’m drawn to this seabird each time I see her, called to pause and waste time. She carries on, focused and undisturbed, an example to me. Simultaneously, she appears on alert, ready to pounce or flee in a heartbeat. Mostly, though, she appears to ponder the moment in front of her.
As I soak up the daily weather vagaries, I make field notes: of temperatures (everything from balmy mid-eighties to snow and sleet in a ten-day stretch), wind speeds, cloud types and density, sun and moon risings, settings, and the related tide schedules. As I record in my spiral sketchbook and soak it all up—come, Spirit, and like the wind cleanse—I shed, layer by layer, the fatigue and worry I brought with me from work and home. Like the egret, I’m here alone to immerse in the watery world and do the work my soul craves. Give us today our daily.
Let All That Has Breath (Noon Day)
I write in the mornings. Afternoons, I bike around Ocracoke’s village square mile, a mixture of paved roads and sandy oyster shell driveways, of ancient cottages and mega vacation homes, of canals and creeks. The Atlantic Ocean on one side of the Island, the Pamlico Sound on the other, I hike the lonely beaches and nature trails. Evenings, for a short while, I’m back at the computer.
Since it’s all or nothing when it comes to conversation during this sojourn, days go by without breathing a word to another soul. Wandering the village side streets one gray afternoon of gale-force wind (too gusty for biking), window-shopping for gift earrings for my daughter from the many closed-for-the-season art craft studios, I suddenly find myself in a two-hour conversation with a fellow non-Islander (i.e., outsider) who has lived on Ocracoke year-round for 40 years. An artist and jewelry maker whose shop is also closed for the season (but she kindly lets me browse anyway), she married an islander whose ancestry goes back to the 1700s. Like his forefathers before him, he’s a vocational fisherman, in addition to working any number of other jobs. Everyone—permanent resident population is approximately 900—seems to be a Jack or Jill of all trades, working two or three jobs, especially during peak tourist season.
Kathleen seems as eager as I do for the verbal exchange of ideas. We share ghost stories. One is about Ocracoke’s Springer Point Nature Preserve on this southern most point of Cape Hatteras, and another reveals a tale about uninhabited Cape Lookout’s abandoned cemetery, further south across the sound. We discuss recipes for surviving the isolated winter, for creative process apart from the business of earning a living, for pesto-grilled bluefish (local, freshly caught, just coming into season), which I tell her we make even when we are camping. It’s that easy. Today’s bluefish are gifts from the approaching Vernal Equinox, a return to more daylight hours among other seasonal blessings, heralding the first day of spring and the turning of tides towards the lingering days of summer.
It has been a very long Lent for me and for several loved ones. Easter’s chorus of rebirth and hallelujahs and tomb-busting reminders cannot come soon enough. Recently, my grandson Chris gave me Albus Dumbledore’s words from the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban movie: “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” And I think, yes: Light pushing out darkness. We live for it!
I leave the jewelry shop, undecided about which earrings, and walk to Silver Lake Harbor, a small port created by the U.S. Navy during World War II when there was, for six short years, a naval operations and training base here. In those days, I’ve just learned, watchtowers dotted the twelve-mile-long, sleeve-shaped Ocracoke Island and saw dozens of German submarines. Nobody talks about this as much as I need them to. Not yet, anyway. Not to an outsider.
At the edge of the harbor, in the shallows, I see her again. The regal snowy waterfowl, standing firm against the wind. She’s waiting for me, it feels, and welcomes my nearness. Less poised to flee this time. Somehow, she sparks my need to get back to the computer, down the mineshaft of solitude. To put the next words on the page. On earth as it is in heaven.
Deep Calls to Deep (Evening)
A full moon graces us this particular week in March, soft and luminous in its nest of stars, a friendly shine on evening walks. It’s visible from the third floor window at my desk by four o’clock even on this cloudy day.
I can’t take sitting any longer. I’ve been transcribing the prayer, as author Bret Lott taught me years ago. Now it’s time to get out of my head and rejoin the physical universe, replenishing mind and imagination so that maybe I’ll have something within to transcribe tomorrow. Gale force winds have turned ghostly, moaning a thunderstorm threat. I head through the deepening gray afternoon to Springer’s Point Nature Preserve. I’ve not yet hiked the full trail this trip and am eager to see the equinox’s evening light at Pamlico Sound, but I’m running out of time to do so.
Arriving at the trailhead, I see the tunnel of live oaks and hanging moss already darker than expected. Storm clouds cast a pewter shroud over the path, but I step forward anyway, determined to push back the return to the real world, as wage-earning is sometimes called. The clock is ticking. Out of the blue, I have an urgent ache for a soul friend to walk this path with me.
Trekking solo, the gloomy footpath narrows to a snaky size and suddenly freaks me out when I hear shrieks and screams. They come from the water’s edge at trail’s end. Then splashing sounds and more screams mixed with teenaged laughter.
Ah, local kids. I glimpse through oak branches and moss-swags and dimness at flesh colored movement in the distance. I see the briefest flash of a long, lean body jumping into another big splash. More squeals and bass-toned snickers.
Skinny dipping? A joyous rite of spring I recall from another life.
I laugh at my own skittishness infusing this serene, if gusty, woodland twilight with spookiness. Lead us not into temptation.
I’m not sure why tonight’s gloaming fills me with fear; it’s usually my favorite time of day. In such a state, I succumb to the darkness of bitter memories that still have the power to sting. Where’s the snowy egret when I need her? Keep on, I resolve—maybe she’s further down the trail. Keep on. Look for her and lay that burden down at the edge of these preserved wetland acres. For the salt water to absorb and absolve. Forgive us as we forgive.
But the moaning wind slicing icily through my sweater trumps my inner rationale. At the next blood-curdling screech, I bolt backwards down the path, through the tomb-dark tunnel. The way I just came is now night-dim, and I run for the village street. The risen moon sits again in its nest of winking stars visible through the thinning pewter clouds. Deliver us from eviThe Heavens Declare (Morning Again)
An exceptionally fine day dawns for my last forty-eight hours, in spite of predicted snow and freezing rain (which do come, later). At the desk before first light, I spy an elegant, white-feathered waterfowl in a rain-filled ditch, but she’s gone before I get the binoculars to confirm if it’s my snowy girl. But thinking it is helps me pack up and prepare to leave this sacred time and space.
My reward for meeting word count and garnering more data and materials? I let myself check email. Lo! Behold! An e-note from a soul friend, companion of the heart. Then, a leisurely bike ride to beach from the village during the moonrise while the sun is still high, and a hike on the empty deep sandy strand of undeveloped, wide-open pristine oceanfront. I’m singing loudly—who’s there to hear?—grateful for the threading of clarity, prayer, work, and play through the week’s solitude, laced with flashes of unreasonable hope. I’m thankful for the restoration of self and soul even through darkness and remembered sorrows, through the laying down of burdens on the salty wet edge of a windswept heaven on earth. The kingdom, the power, and the glory.