Starry, Starry Night…


Saturday night I stumbled across the singer/songwriter, Alan Toussaint, in concert on PBS. Toussaint is a 60-something, African-American vocalist and piano player. He grew up in New Orleans and still lives there. His songs tell stories. Frankly, I have heard of him, but never heard him before. I only caught the last two songs, but the last one surprised me. Toussaint didn’t jump from one tune to the next, he told a story to the crowd while supplying his own musical accompaniment which helped set the mood from which the story emerged. Although Toussaint grew up in New Orleans, his parents’ extended family lived in the country. The country relatives lived there by choice and love, in spite of not having electricity, indoor plumbing, or running water. They wouldn’t have wanted to live anywhere else, he said.

Toussaint loved the visits to the country. He was the youngest of the family, and as soon as the car pulled up into the dirt driveway, Alan’s door was open and he was running up to a group of folks outside sitting on the porch. When he attacked the stairs, a group of black women would grab hold of him in a collection of hugs, their ample bosoms enveloping his face until he feared he would never catch another breath. Hugs were spread around the entire family. Arriving was a joy! Chairs were brought out from the house. When there were no more chairs, there was plenty of space on the  floor, or on the railing along the edge of the porch.

After everyone was caught up on the news of each other’s lives, the family would eat outside, conversing between bites of goodness. Conversations were filled with barbs of humor lobbed at each other, the severity of tone undercut by a twinkle in the eye.  Pots filled with food seemed to race with the sun to see which would disappear first. Usually the food won, the  stacks of empty pots rising higher as the sun sank lower on the horizon. Finally, younger kids were dispatched to carry the stacks into the house as the adults sank into chairs to watch the sun set and moon rise. A beautiful tale of simpler times spent with family and surrounded by love.

As the story unfolded, I was reminded of my own childhood and my father sitting at the piano, in a not so dissimilar setting, also telling stories accompanied by his own artistry on the piano. The setting of my memory, however, was a scene played out in countless churches across the nation. Dad would weave his own tales of love and family, but my father’s words were specifically about God and his love for us, his children. Both Toussaint and Dad were speaking to the souls of those listening. Both painted pictures which lead each person into a place of peace and contentment, yet which also brought a certain disenchantment with the rapid pace of lives spent in chasing the urgent all the while neglecting the most essential of values.

My memory continued to follow the scene to a night spent in Southeast Colorado, when I was a child. My family was staying with my Aunt Phyllis and Uncle Melvin. They were living on a farm at the edge of a tiny spot on the map, called Campo, Colorado. I loved that farm. Uncle Melvin was a custom harvestor at the time. His family would take a combine, two trucks, a pickup, and travel trailor within which they lived each summer and followed the ripening wheat from Texas to South Dakota. He would sub-contract work for farmers at each stop. On this particular night of my memory, they had parked their travel trailer next to their house, and my family slept in it. My family visited Aunt Phyllis and Uncle Melvin often throughout the years. Our families always enjoyed each visit. My parents and Phyllis and Melvin knew how to share life together. They worked together, joked together, ate together, cried together, relaxed together… They just knew how to share the journey, and I loved it!

One night, we were sitting outside watching the sun set. It was a beautiful night with a slight breaze chasing away the heat of the day. I don’t know who mentioned it, but someone said that it was just too beautiful to sleep inside. So, why do it? Dad decided to get a mattress from inside the house… why we needed a mattress I don’t really know, probably because my guuuurrrrlll cousin, Velda, didn’t want to sleep on the ground…. We brought the mattress out into the yard, got some blankets, just in case it became too cool, and lay down to watch the stars come out and count them. Sometime, in mid count, with the breeze blowing the trees around us,  the blanket of quiet wrapping around us, punctuated  from time to time with the contented lowing of a distant cow or the suspicious barking of one of the dogs intent on frightening off whatever potential intruder had made noise in the dark which only the dog could hear… I fell peacefully asleep….

…Until I was startled into confused consciousness by the voice of my dad and his insistant nudge. Awakening, I realized that the wind was no longer softly caressing the trees, but was bending them over with its force. The stars were gone and a low rumble of thunder  began to build until even the mattress shuddered. You could smell the rain coming. A peel of lightning split the sky followed closely by a clap of teeth rattling thunder.

We grabbed the blankets, openned the side door of the house and threw them inside. Next, we struggled to haul the mattress against the wind, and tried to stuff it through the door, and replace it atop the boxsprings, so my cousin would have a place to sleep. With big drops beginning to pelt us, Dad and I ran to the comparative safety of the travel trailer… if a trailer can be said to provide safety in a thunderstorm on the plains….

Finally, after the adrenalin began to wane, and some order was restored in our temporary lodging, I tried to go back to sleep, listening as the rain pelted the metal roof and sides of the trailer.

Why does that picture stick in my memory? A feeling of peace and calm, totally enveloped by the canopy of the natural world, but which is unexpectedly dashed by that same natural world. Thunderstorms are part of the rythmic pattern of the nature. Not only do we expect them, but in a given context and place, we hope they pass through. They pour life giving water into parched places. While their power can be scary, they are magnificent to behold. Yes, thunderstorms happen!  And we are humbled.

The other day I rode the bike path which follows the course of Indian Creek. I ride it several times a week, in fact, so I know it pretty well. My favorite place on the trail is a little bench which sits beside the path, overlooking the creek and faces a HUGE sycamore tree. Sitting in front of the bench is a sign which tells of how sycamore and cottonwood trees spread their seeds. The sign also explains that the giant sycamore across the creek was dated to be 200 years old  in the year 2000. So the tree is 210 years old… but will never be 211. A brief but raucous thunderstorm blew through a couple weeks ago and blew half of the tree to the ground. Then another storm this past weekend brought the rest of it down, leaving a jagged stump, about 15 feet tall and roughly 6-7 feet thick. Those are my guesstimates, since the tree is across the creek, in the back yard of a beautiful house, and I haven’t made the trek across the creek to examine it more closely. I am sad it is gone…

Its not gone, however. The wood is still there. 210 years of growth, can be cut up and used for firewood to provide heat for several homes. If the tree were in the forrest, far away from human manipulation, the wood would stay where it fell, eventually rotting and returning its hard earned nutrients back to the soil. As I sat studying the scene, I suddenly noticed just how many sycamore trees there were along the creek. The younger trees most certainly are daughter trees. Just how many trees have their genesis from the seeds this one tree produced in 210 growing seasons? How far away did the seeds travel during the spring floods?

That seems to be God’s economy.

New life…

Growth…

Producing seeds…

Storms…

Injury…

Death…

Recycle…

New life…

All along the way, there is beauty, and nothing is wasted…

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