Shelter: Noun, a place providing temporary safety from bad weather or danger
As I sat down to write about my shelter experience, two bluebirds landed on the walnut tree outside my window, drying their wings from the rain. I always get excited about the return of my bluebirds, cleaning out their nesting boxes and adding new ones. Sometimes I worry that they won’t return, but then they do, bringing with them the promise of another spring. Today, though, I can only tell they’re bluebirds by their shape and size. Due to the gloomy weather this morning, they look like grey birds.
It turns out bluebirds’ brilliant blue color is an illusion; or at least, not a real pigment. The structure of their feathers absorbs all other colors of the spectrum, gathering up only the blue waves and reflecting them back into the sky. On sunny days, they look like sapphires. On grey days, they pretty much look grey.
It’s ironic that the dark days of the Corona Virus arrived just as the rain finally remembered California. I’m grateful for rain, but the worldwide gloom is palpable. We’ve been ordered inside for an indefinite period of time in hopes of slowing the rampage of the virus. We’re restless and worried. Somberly, we wait, as if for a tsunami.
But the bluebirds -- historical symbols of luck and happiness -- have returned. Even on this dreary day, when the bluebirds are not blue, they remind me that spring is here. They’re shaking off the rain, scoping out the real estate, making plans for the future. Which seems like a good plan to me. We have to get through this rough patch to get to brighter days.
Yesterday I took a long walk, trying to outpace my gloom. I came around a bend and saw my favorite Valley Oak, just beginning to leaf out. It’s mossy old branches stretch skyward, like arms reaching up in prayer, and low, nearly swooping the ground.
I’ve read that the Chumash trained some ancient oaks to grow low, for easy acorn gathering. I ponder this as I walk by. But Gus, our lazy St. Bernard, who cares neither for history, nor acorns, only wants to rest under this tree.
Instead of urging him along, as I usually do, I decided to rest a moment with him. I looked at one of the low branches that seemed exactly bench-height, and sat down. Sturdy but springy, it supported me easily.
For a moment I worried about loitering there, as I was on private property. But I was tired, and my nerves too ragged to care. So, I settled on the mossy branch. And then I had this moment. It felt like the tree breathed with me.
It was, of course, only the swaying of the branch. It was the wind, plus my weight, plus the springiness of branch, but it felt exactly like when I was 16, loping through a field, bare-back, on my old mare, feeling her chest rise and fall beneath me, breathing as if we were one. It startled me at first—this sensation that I was on a living, possibly even breathing thing, but then it was lovely.
Small, unseen birds filled the oak, twittering and singing. A spring breeze lifted my hair. I breathed in the scent of grass and wildflowers. I closed my eyes. I felt safe from the storm.
Enclosed in that circle of branches, I suddenly understood the meaning of the word shelter. It isn’t meant to be permanent. It is meant to offer rest and safety, until the conditions are right to journey on. For that moment, the oak tree was the best of all possible shelters. And even though it was just a feeling, who’s to say that this oak did not, in fact, inhale and exhale along with me, exchanging, instead of only C02 and O2, but also, my great anxiety for its great calm?
I cannot sit on a tree branch forever, though. And bluebirds can’t stay forever in their nests. When the babies are safely grown, they’ll return to the woods and the sky. But for now, shelter is what’s needed.
It is the same for us. We’ve been asked to “shelter in place.” But more than just physical shelter, we need emotional shelter. Using the scaffolding of our lives, and the sturdy canvas of our gifts, we each have tools. Maybe our gifts are time, compassion, skill, talent or humor. Maybe it’s cooking, music, art, scientific minds,leadership, courage, ideas, or whatever it is you were sent here to share—all of these are the soul of shelter.
I find regular refuge in the words of Sylvia Boorstein, and Annie Lammot, who cobble together both shelter and light with their work. I find refuge in the funny photos and songs that artists put out. This is our job for now. Create shelter. Offer shelter. Accept shelter. Be a candle, while we wait for brighter days.
A bluebird’s dazzling color is not, in fact, a mere illusion. It’s the breathtaking result of their design and structure, combined with light. It’s their small superpower. We have superpowers too. We only need light for them to activate. Hold on for the light. Better still, become the light.
There’s something about the days between Christmas and New Years that are my favorite of all. Not much real work happens. Not much is expected of us. It’s a sort of limbo-land between the holy days of Christmas and the start of a new year.
After this, we’re expected to buckle down and do life diligently again. Resolutions, determination, and responsibility. But for now, for most of us, these in-between days are like stolen time. I’m pretty sure that the great Counter of Our Days doesn’t count these forgotten days. These are the freebees.
The truth is, by the end of December, we are all exhausted. The year is old. The days are short. The Counter offer Days is old and tired. Who wouldn’t be, after trying to keep this wayward batch of humans on track? I’m getting old and tired, too, which is exactly why I’m putting myself to bed. Hitting the sack early makes me feel young and safe again, like I’m being tucked in.
All I know is, tonight it’s dark, cold, and a long time until daylight. There’s no place better to be than bed. A few days ago, we celebrated the Winter Solstice, so-- while-- Yay for the light beginning to return--it’s still pretty damn dark and cold. And none of the news on TV is inviting enough to stay up for.
When we were kids, if we were lucky, someone kind ushered us through a soothing bedtime ritual: bath, tooth-brush, story, prayers, pillow fluff, covers tuck, lullaby, good night. Who wouldn’t sleep well after that? Why do we not still need this? I’m pretty sure we still do. We just have to do it ourselves now.
I generally fall into bed after only a cursory skirmish with toothbrush and soap. My bedtime prayer is more like a mutter: “thank GOD,” as I bury face into pillow, hoping for a quick oblivion, while the trials of the day buzz around my ears like mosquitos.
But tonight, I’m reviving the ritual of tucking in. It’s ridiculously early; no one knows I’m hiding here in my bed. But I’ve done all I can for the problems of the day. It occurs to me that some of these problems may just have to sort themselves out, without any help from me. I don’t seem to be making lots of progress anyway.
Honestly, some problems will only be resolved by the eventual demise, or at least memory lossof all concerned, whichever comes first. And some problems may need SEVERAL lifetimes to sort out. This mindset takes off a lot of pressure. After all, who said we were the ones in charge of solving them anyway? I think that’s why God invented Himself, to figure out all the problems, so I’m handing them all off on a silver platter. You’re welcome!
So, no worrying allowed in our bedtime ritual. Only soothing activities. That rules out most TV and social media. For me, a pile of my favorite books. Christmas lights shining outside the window, big pillows, warm blankets. Something nice to sip. I plan to swat away annoying thoughts like the biting bugs they are.
I confess, I have a secret weapon. On my nightstand is a small stash of chocolate toffee, which arrived from the UPS man, with no identification. If no one takes credit for sending this, are there any calories involved? Is this chocolate as free as these in-between days?
In the blackest part of winter, toffee cloaked in dark chocolate with a few sips of red wine is sublime. I’ve stumbled upon at least one kind of Divinity, nestled in the quiet, magical, unassuming days between Christmas and New Years.
If you didn’t remember to claim these days as your own Private Retreat this year, it’s not too late. Even in the midst of real life, you can claim a retreat, without ever leaving home. Just be sure to remember this early next year.
If we’re all lucky enough to be warm, and fed, and dry on this dark night-- we are lucky indeed. Tuck yourself in. Before you close your eyes, thank the Counter of Your Days for another chance tomorrow to figure out what matters most. And tonight, may you have the sweetest of dreams.
I haven’t posted for a while, because I was confused about my life, and I couldn’t seem to find the words. I’m not sure I do now, but I’m giving it a stab. I often write about water, because it interests me, how it’s both life-giving and life-changing, and the topics are endless. In my last essay, I wrote about the muddy, swift and pretty damn cold water that was swirling around me.
Welcome to Streamriffs.com, a place for fellow creek- walkers and nature lovers. Lori Fisher Peelen lives in California with her family.