Life at the Ephrata Cloister

They slept on wooden benches that were 15 inches wide.

In my last post, The Ephrata Codex and the First Known Female Composers in America, I discussed an interesting compendium of music from 1746 that is currently housed in the Library of Congress. This music was originally created at the Ephrata Cloister in what is now Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. These Germanic hymns are remarkable in their simplicity, and are very haunting and beautiful if you have a chance to hear them performed. (More details on how to do so can be found in that post.)

Deep within the pages of this beautifully illuminated codex, a scholar named Chris Herbert discovered that several of the compositions were attributed to three of the sisters who led celibate lives as part of the religious commune. These are now considered to be the first known written compositions by women in what is now America.

I wish we knew more about Sisters Hannah, Föben, and Katura. Currently it seems that all we know was that they lived to be about 79, 67 and 79 respectively, at a time when most women would consider themselves lucky to make it into their 40’s. Life in 18th century America tended to be unhygienic, brutish and short.

Think about it. According to this article, today, about 15 American women die in pregnancy or childbirth per 100,000 live births. That’s outrageous and says much about our broken health care system in this country. But in the 1700’s, when it wasn’t uncommon for women to have 8 children, the death rate was more like 1200 women per 100,000 live births. And by the last half of that century, long before reliable birth control, about one in three girls were already pregnant when they walked down the aisle.

Those are some scary statistics. Women must have felt like they had little choice but to play Russian Roulette with their ovaries. Most of them could expect to stare mortality in the eye several times throght the course of their lives. Under those circumstances, joining a celibate commune would be (sorry) a Godsend.

Joining the Ephrata community afforded a woman the opportunity to not have to focus on mere survival as most people did. Not only was the average woman raising a large family, she was preparing meals from scratch, making her own clothing, soap and candles, and fetching water for the laundry she had to do by hand. And if she found herself, by some misfortune, to be left as the only surviving parent, there were scant opportunities for her to make money. The only occupations that were common for white women back then were domestic service, childcare, gardening, and household production in the forms that I described above. (I specify white women because slavery was still very much in effect at the time and that’s another subject entirely. Suffice it to say that the lives of most black women were, at the very least, a thousand times more brutal.)

To make matters worse, that era was also plagued with smallpox, typhoid fever, dysentery, malaria, yellow fever, and measles. Often these maladies were brought on by unsanitary living conditions and made even more deadly by a dearth of formally educated medical professionals, especially outside of the larger cities.        

Clearly, most colonial women didn’t have time to consider composing music or producing art of any kind. It wouldn’t even have been on their radar. But the sisters who lived at Ephrata Cloister led different lives, indeed. Celibacy alone afforded those women a longevity that other women merely dreamed of. A longer lifespan meant more years to be musically and artistically creative. It makes me wonder whether all the sisters in this community were genuinely pious. This life sounds like a logical choice if you’re a woman living in that era and you want more out of life.

But that’s not to say that the sister’s lives were easy. They slept on wooden benches that were 15 inches wide, and they used wooden pillows. They slept in two 3 hour shifts per night, and usually ate one small vegetarian meal per day, often consisting of roots, greens, fresh baked bread and water. Witness reports say that the celibate sisters and brothers all looked thin and pale, but they appeared healthy.

The sanitation at the cloister was poor at best, and they were not able to bathe often. The white robes that they wore must have glowed in stark contrast to their dirty state. And yet I imagine those robes were a nightmare to keep clean as well.

When Sisters Hannah, Föben, and Katura and their fellow celibates were not composing, creating art, or praying, the sisters would spin thread, often to be woven into linen by the men at the fulling mill, in order to produce the cloth needed for the robes. They would also copy music and tend gardens. Brothers would run the water-powered saw mill, the grain mill, the paper mill, and the oil mill that extracted natural oils from seeds or oil rich vegetables. The brothers also, of course, built all the structures in the commune.

Their religious philosophies seem to have been rather unique. They believed that God had a male, wrathful side, embodied by Christ, but also a female side that was pure love and wisdom, and was embodied by someone called Sophia. The brothers and sisters were married to one side or the other, and therefore were expected to remain faithful to that spouse. Hence the celibacy.

The community’s collection of books subscribed to a wide range of ideas, including alchemy and astrology.  It seems that members of the community were not strictly bound to a rigidly defined creed. Some in the community believed in sacred visions, and that all parts of nature are intimately interconnected. One book on alchemy describes how to generate life from the lifeless. They also read about Gnosticism, Rosicrucianism, the Harmony Society, Hermeticism and Kabbalah.

You can peek inside some of their books on the Historic Ephrata Cloister’s website. One book, called The Golden Chain of Homer, includes a page in an unknown language.

The community also highly prized a book that opined that although the earth was round, its basic nature was cubic, and at its center lies the holy point of rest, also known as New Jerusalem. They also had a well-illustrated book that described the process of spiritual transformation on the body. Clearly these people were dedicated to seeking out the proper spiritual path for themselves, by any means necessary.

It appears that some members also practiced powwowing, which originated with the Pennsylvania Dutch. It’s a folk magic tradition that includes aspects of folk religion and healing charms. (I was fascinated to learn that the term abracadabra is associated with powwowing.)

In this article about Chris Herbert’s discovery of the female composers in the cloister, he states that “Rules about worship changed frequently at Ephrata. At times devotees shaved their heads, at other times they slept only three hours a night. Treatises were written about what to eat in order to sing properly, and what to eat in general — no meat, no honey.”

The founder and spiritual leader of this community, Johann Conrad Beissel, seems to have been philosophically influenced by Radical Pietists and Mystics. He came to America from Germany in 1720 and was still forming his belief system when he was baptized by the Brethren-Anabaptists in 1724, but he eventually rejected the brethren when he decided that the Sabbath should fall on Saturday rather than Sunday. (Scandalous!)

By 1732 Beissel decided to move deeper into the Pennsylvania forest and become a hermit, stating that he had a distrust of organized churches. He wanted to lead a quiet life of contemplation, but friends who believed in his philosophies followed him and built homes near his. They called this place the Camp of the Solitary. Yet, oddly, many of them lived in shared dwellings.

Then came other followers who chose not to be celibate. They were called householders. They were couples who were farmers and craftsmen. They lived nearby, supported what became the cloister, and worshiped with the brothers and sisters, allowing them to have more time to compose and draw, and hold ceremonies that included the washing of feet.

When Beissel died in 1768, membership really started to decline. The last celibate member died in 1813. At its height, the community consisted of about 80 celibate men and women, and 200 non-celibate householders living on farms nearby. After 1813, the buildings that used to house celibate members were divided into apartments and rented to church members. The last surviving (non-celibate) resident of the cloister, Marie Elizabeth Kachel Bucher, died in 2008 at the age of 98. She apparently moved from the Ephrata area in 1927, but before that she had given tours of the now empty cloister.

Today, the historic Ephrata Cloister is maintained by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and from the looks of it, they are doing a wonderful job. They certainly have a well-designed website that makes me long to visit the actual place someday. The information on this website has taught me much about Ephrata Cloister despite my distance. I lingered on its pages for hours. It includes a virtual tour, a well-made introductory video that is also played in the visitor center, and some interesting slide presentations (I particularly recommend the one called Hidden Knowledge at Ephrata) and if that ignites your interest, you can even attend a Virtual Ephrata Academy, which includes a dozen very fascinating lecture-length videos on a whole host of subjects related to the cloister in its heyday.

I am grateful that this cloister existed, especially for the sisters. It allowed them to lead fuller, healthier lives, and demonstrates that women of that era were just as creative as women are today. They simply needed the time and space to express themselves. That time and space, given to them in the form of that community, was a precious gift. We are all beneficiaries of that gift, because we can still hear their music, view their art, and walk around their community.

Other Sources:

https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/common-diseases-18th-and-19th-century

https://clickamericana.com/topics/health-medicine/us-life-expectancy-in-the-1800s

https://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/six-unbelievable-but-true-facts-about-colonial-life/

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First Post of the Year: We’ve Got This.

Change happens.

Happy 2022, everybody!

Well, here’s hoping, anyway. I can’t shake the feeling that there will be more drastic changes this year, globally, politically, environmentally, and pandemically. I suspect yours truly will be hard-pressed to keep up with those changes in this forum, but I promise to do my best to shower you with my usual quirky and unsolicited opinions.

I don’t do New Year’s Resolutions. I haven’t in decades. My failure rate is too high, and there’s no sense setting myself up for said failure right out of the calendrical gate. And this year will be unpredictable, so it’s a lot harder to make any sort of a plan to reach any sort of a goal.

Frankly, most of the time these days I’m just sitting around feeling nostalgic about those kinder, gentler times when I could give out free hugs to strangers. Those days are gone. So maybe my goal should be to see everyone as germ vectors, yes, but choose to like them anyway. I think that may still be achievable.

On the day I post this, Dear Husband and I should have been driving home from a romantic mini-break in Victoria, Canada. But we decided to cancel, because there’s no predicting if the borders will remain open, there’s no predicting how bad this Omicron variant will get, and one of our dogs is displaying some worrisome but vague health changes. None of us are getting any younger. So we chose to do the responsible thing and mini-break in place. We weren’t expecting that. But, you know, change happens.

I think many of us have a gut instinct to fear change. That stands to reason. Knowing what the heck was going on was critical for the survival of our cavewomen ancestors. Their ability to predict is what has allowed us all to be here. I’m sure that instinct to desire predictability was passed right along to us. Now we’re having to squelch that fear of change in exchange for a heaping helping of flexibility, and some of us are better at that than others.

But I’m feeling optimistic today, and looking back on the past couple of years it’s very evident that we’ve all been through a lot. Change has come at us at a furious rate. And yet, here we are. We’ve made it this far. It may not have been pretty, but we did it. And I suspect that will be the case this year, too, as long as this pandemic is taken seriously.

I suspect that there will be many times this year when I’m tempted to post just one sentence: “I’ve got nothing.” Coming up with topics for this blog is a constant challenge, especially when all travel plans and new experiences seem to teeter on the edge of cancellation. But as I said up above, I’ll do my best.

When all is said and done, that’s really the most any of us can do, isn’t it? I believe that the majority of us are really doing the best that we can under these difficult circumstances, and because of that, I choose to continue to have faith in us. We’ve got this. Just you wait and see.

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A Thought Experiment, Courtesy of My Subconscious

There’s a lot to be considered.

I woke up on the morning I wrote this with a sentence from my dream still echoing through my head. To wit: At the end of the world, will the last human left to die feel bitterness or relief?

Wow. My subconscious is profound. I’m impressed. My first instinct was to write that down so I could blog about it.

My second, of course, was to ponder the question. And it’s quite the can of worms once you pop it open. There’s a lot to be considered.

First of all, without knowing what caused the end of the world, it’s hard to gauge whether you’d be able to make a go of it, all alone, until a ripe old age. I’ve often said that I’d prefer to have a nuclear bomb land right on the crown of my head rather than trying to survive a nuclear winter. It’s a quality of life thing. Why prolong the inevitable?

Was the end quick in coming, or did humans have time to destroy everything on the way out? That would make a huge difference, too. If change is to come, let it be swift.

But what if the end of the human world were brought on by a pandemic and you found yourself to be immune? It would be lonely, but I think I’d like to stick around and enjoy the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees for as long as I could. I wouldn’t want to be in a large city, though. The smell alone would be horrific, at least for the first many years.

I would grieve for people, and for my past, no doubt about it. But I think the sheer size of that grief, and the finality of it all, might make the feeling implode under its own weight. There’d be nothing for it but to get on with things.

If I were absolutely certain that I was the last human on earth, I would have considerably less to be afraid of. Most of my fear springs from the actions of other humans. Nature can be harsh, and it would be a struggle to survive, but human violence would be a thing of the past. That might be nice, all things considered.

I hope I’d have a dog for a companion.

There’d be no more need for money. I’d become a scavenger, no doubt, and would have to move to a mild climate. Or maybe I’d migrate like the other animals, and have a summer home and a winter home. I’m sure I’d garden. I’d probably forget how to talk, but there’d be no shortage of books. And as an occasional treat, I’d break into a museum. Just to look around. I’d become adept at breaking and entering. First stop: The nearest Amazon warehouse. I’d raid it not for frivolous stuff, but for shoes and winter coats and the like.

I think it would be a bittersweet existence, punctuated by the constant need for warmth and food and drinkable water. But when the time came for me to shuffle off this abandoned mortal coil, I don’t think I’d be bitter, because there would be no one to blame. I might have a regret or two, but I think I would be relieved that I made it as far as I did, and that this particular journey was finally over.

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Sticking the Landing

Keep trying!

A dear friend of mine recently told me that for many years he had watched me tumbling through space, with my arms out, desperately and unsuccessfully clutching at anything in an attempt to gain stability. I’m sure it was almost as painful to watch as it was for me to experience. “But then,” he said, “you stuck the landing.”

I love that imagery. Like stepping out of an airplane, and clumsily flailing end over end in a dizzying freefall, and even, more than once, getting tangled up in my own parachute, only to find that I was still able to land safely, against all odds. That’s my life in a nutshell. I marvel at the fact that I survived.

I tried many things over the years. Colleges and trade schools in which I’d excel, academically, but ultimately those places got me nowhere. I bought a house, had to sell it during the crash, and then poorly invested what little money I gained from it. I got into a few relationships that made me even worse off, both financially and emotionally. For a while there, I was so nomadic that I barely bothered to unpack.

At some point I began to feel like I had nothing to lose, and I moved across the country to start over at age 49. I didn’t know anyone in Seattle. I knew nothing about Seattle except that the show Frasier was based here, and that there was rain. Lots and lots of rain.

It took me a few years to gain my footing in this foreign place, and I have to admit that there are still things about Seattle that I don’t think I’ll ever get used to. But I did stick the landing, indeed. I’m married, have a great job, and am living in a place worth unpacking for. Life is good.

Now to shake the feeling that I’m going to wake up to discover it was all an illusion and that I’ve actually broken every bone in my body. Call it imposter syndrome writ large. But hey, even in that scenario, the ground will be stable beneath me, right?

My late boyfriend Chuck used to say, “We’ll get it done. It may not be pretty, but we’ll definitely get there.” And so it has been.

I wrote this for everyone out there who feels as if they are flailing. Don’t give up. Keep trying. As long as you draw breath, it’s still possible to stick that landing.

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An Horrific Insight

Cold, wet, desperate people, everywhere.

There are actually three versions of this story. The first version was my initial, gut reaction. The second was my instant reaction after obtaining more information. The third was my conclusion after some calm, pragmatic thought. Be sure and read to the very end if you want to see how quickly your point of view can be altered!

Version One:

It was your typical Pacific Northwest November night: raw, wet, cold, and basically gloomy. But I was inside, warm and safe and dry, beside a crackling fire, watching Netflix. All was right with the world, even though I was totally taking it for granted.

And then came the knock on my door. I nearly jumped out of my fuzzy pajamas. We almost never get visitors unannounced, especially in times of pandemic. Our house is relatively isolated and not close to the main street, so it takes some effort to get here. Here’s the perfect litmus test for that: There have been no Halloween trick or treaters on this front porch in decades.

It was a young man, asking for food. Not begging. Not giving an explanation or an excuse. He was just hungry and in need. He looked wet and disheveled and had nothing with him but a backpack.

My husband had him wait on the porch (safety first), and went in and made him a big sandwich. He threw an apple, a Pepsi, and a tuna snack for later into the mix. He then sent him on his way.

A wave of sadness washed over me. It was the sadness of knowing that we’d be seeing a lot more of this in the coming months. Desperate people. Cold, wet, desperate people, everywhere. And there would always be this feeling of not having done enough. There are just so many of them, and only one of me.

There’s also this sense of survivor’s guilt. I’m considered an essential worker, although I have no idea why. So my income hasn’t decreased in this pandemic. I’ve managed to stay relatively isolated and healthy, and I still have my health insurance. I suspect I’ll stay warm and dry throughout the winter. Even my dogs will get to stay warm and dry. I’m not at all accustomed to being one of the haves.

I wonder where that young man slept that night. I wonder where he’ll sleep tonight. For me, he is the leading edge of a wall of hundreds of thousands of people out there, just trying to survive. This is the wall that has been built, and it’s an ugly thing to behold.

I can’t shake the feeling that this is only the beginning. How privileged so many of us have been, secure in the knowledge that survival was likely. Now everything seems much more fragile. And a heck of a lot more scary.

Version Two:

The next day, without us even having broached the subject, some friends from 1/2 mile down the street said that the same guy came to their door that night. That time he was turned away and the theory that he was casing the neighborhood, seeing which houses don’t have men and/or dogs, for later burglary, was posited.

I was instantly furious. Had we been used? Are we now unsafe? He could see our TV through the window. I hate being taken advantage of! People suck!

Version Three:

After I had a chance to calm down and climb out from under my massive pile of righteous indignation, I realized that in both versions above, I was drawing conclusions from facts not in evidence. I will never know what that young man’s motivations were.

Was he a saint or a sinner? My most pragmatic self assumes that, like most of us, he is something in between. From that concept, a new theory has emerged for me.

It was a wet, raw, miserable night, and most criminals are lazy. If he had been casing the neighborhood, I suspect he’d have waited for better weather to do so. No one would be out in that weather without a good reason. So I suspect he was, indeed, in need.

But I also now suspect that like most panhandlers, he was hoping that if he asked for food, what he’d really get was money. Money is a much more flexible commodity. With it you can buy food you actually like. Or you can pay the rent. Or you can buy drugs or alcohol. Or you can take care of a sick child.

He did stand out on the porch and wait for the food. If he had been casing the neighborhood, that would have slowed him down. If he was hoping for money, maybe once he realized that my husband was actually fixing him food, he hoped that some actual cash would also be slipped into the bag.

The money theory makes me sad, because I feel mildly manipulated. But at least there was still a need there, whatever it may have been, and we did our best to help. I hope drugs or alcohol was not a factor. There’s no way to know.

But what’s the point of speculating, really? Our motivations were pure. If his motivations were not, that’s on him. I just hate that we live in a world where we feel the need to question and theorize. I hate that this might taint our desire to help our fellow man in the future. The bottom line is that we’ll never know the whole story.

What do you think, dear reader?

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Are We Living in a Dystopia?

Are we living wretched, dehumanized, fearful lives?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word dystopia originally meant “displacement of an organ.” But the word, based on our current understanding as an “imaginary bad place”, was first used in a speech by J.S. Mill in 1868.

That this word is so young surprises me a great deal, because human beings have always been rather good at imagining the worst. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines a dystopia as “an imagined world or society in which people lead wretched, dehumanized, fearful lives.” We’ve been either living such lives, or imagining them, for many centuries, it seems.

Thanks to our current pandemic, we are all definitely living fearful lives, and for those who are unable to work, life is becoming increasingly wretched. But have we become dehumanized? We have if you’re craving dried beans, toilet paper, or Purell, I suppose.

But I’m encouraged by the many ways we’ve come up with to remain connected to one another. I’m impressed that so many people are making some noise, every night, to thank health care workers. I love the number of people who are behaving responsibly by staying home and by wearing masks in public. I think, if anything, we’re more human than ever before.

I’ve always enjoyed reading dystopian novels. I like to be reminded about how good I have it, relatively speaking. It’s gratifying to see how resourceful people can be when they have to struggle to survive. I must admit, though, that I haven’t been able to appreciate this genre quite as much lately. Things are getting a little too real.

But I have to believe, for my own sanity if for nothing else, that we’re not in a dystopia yet. Our infrastructures are relatively intact. We have access to good information if we employ a bit of critical thinking. We may not always be able to eat exactly what we would like, but we definitely have access to food. Sane people haven’t felt the need to board up their windows and spend all their waking hours clutching shotguns. We still have Netflix.

We may be forever changed when we come out the other side of this, but I truly believe the majority of us will, indeed, come out the other side of this. Hopefully we’ll have learned how to better cope with the next crisis as a result.

Stay safe everybody. Wear masks. Wash your hands.

war-of-the-worlds-by-robert

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100% Survival Rate

Winning!

“I’m having a really, really, really bad day,” I said to my husband. “All this quarantine stress is getting to me, and the drama at work is hard to take, and I’m so tired.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. “Please remember that you’ve got a 100% survival rate for previous difficult days.”

And just like that, I felt a lot better.

My husband is often really good at saying the right thing. And his words gave me a perspective that I’d never contemplated before. Yeah. I’m a survivor. So are you. We’re here, right? We have won this competition, every single solitary day, for our entire lives. Check that off the to-do list. Winning!

That standpoint makes me feel empowered. It makes me feel capable. It gives me the strength to carry on. I’ve made it through more than 20,000 days so far. This silly little day is child’s play. I’ve got this! You’ve got this, too!

I hope I never forget this lesson. Thanks, dear husband! Your positivity will see me through.

winning

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A Cystic Dream

I can handle it.

I have this recurring dream during periods of high stress in my life. I feel this painful, pressurized lump somewhere on my body, often on a shoulder, hip, or behind my ear. I try to squeeze it to no avail. Messing with it hurts, but I have to get it out of there. I pick at it. I scratch it. No luck whatsoever.

Then one day, I’m clawing away at it without much hope of success, and, pop! Suddenly it bursts through the skin. It’s still attached, still intact, but at least it’s outside my body, so the pressure is reduced. Even so, I want it gone. So I take a deep breath, brace myself, and cut it out. It detaches with a sickening, watery, ripping squelch. But it doesn’t hurt nearly as much as I anticipated. What was I so worried about?

Now I’m holding it in my hand. It’s warm. It’s actually kind of pretty, now that I’m free of it. It’s a perfect sphere. The most perfect one I’ve ever seen. It’s shiny and white, like a pearl. (That is, if a pearl were the size of a golf ball.)

I’m kind of in love with this thing, because I realize that it’s all my problems, beautifully encapsulated. I can control it. I can handle it. Best of all, I can get rid of it. So I do.

I always wake up smiling after that dream. I often go to sleep wishing that I’ll have it. I take comfort from the fact that it exists somewhere deep inside me.

It is survival.

Pearl

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Coyotes

I’ve never seen anything that looked so feral in my life.

I was standing in a big, dirty parking lot in the industrial part of town. Think concrete and gas fumes. It would be difficult to find a less natural setting. And it was raining, causing rivulets of polluted snowmelt to criss cross the pavement as far as the eye could see.

That’s when I spotted her. A coyote, running down the sidewalk as semi trucks blasted past. She looked mangy and emaciated. I’ve never seen anything that looked so feral in my life.

I was fascinated, but also glad that she hadn’t come too close. There was something surreal about seeing her there. It was almost like she was floating in outer space. This should not be her environment.

She was focused on her mission, whatever that may have been. She didn’t acknowledge me, although I’m sure she was acutely aware of my presence. Nothing was going to get in her way, not even an 18 wheeler. And she was quiet. If I hadn’t been looking that direction, I’d have never known she was there.

I had never come face to face with a coyote before. I know they’re around. I sometimes hear them howling in the park behind our house. It always gives me a frisson. And it makes me worry for my Dachshund.

But to see one is something else again. It’s like being confronted by the raw power of nature. Even in her weakened state, I had no doubt that she was stronger than me, and much more capable of surviving.

At the same time, I felt sorry for her, living on the ugliest, dirtiest fringes of human civilization. We have done this. We have encroached. She shouldn’t have to live like this.

None of us should have to live like this.

https _upload.wikimedia.org_wikipedia_commons_6_6f_Coyote_in_Griffith_Park_3

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Grass

Nature never ceases to amaze me.

Isn’t nature awesome? It never ceases to amaze me. The natural world is capable of so much more than we mere humans are.

Case in point: Grass. I recently watched my back yard get covered in 9 inches of snow, and it remained in place for a week. While it was beautiful, I couldn’t help wondering what was going on beneath it.

Imagine being covered in a thick, cold, wet, smotheringly heavy blanket. Imagine being plunged into temperatures below freezing for days on end. Imagine not being able to see the sun during that entire period.

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I’d be dead. Stick a fork in me. I’d be done.

And yet, once the grass was exposed again in a thaw that is still making slow but steady progress even as I write this, it was as green and perky as ever. Incredible. Dare I say it? Miraculous.

Okay, yeah, I get it. There is a scientific explanation for it. I have every confidence that this phenomenon can be accounted for. But I’d much rather just gaze at my intrepidly green back yard and consider myself lucky that it is content in its beauty and comfortable in its role in the overall scheme of things. Because if it had a union, it would probably rule the world.

Grass and Snow

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