I can hear the wind rattling outside the house and the rain blows against the windows from time to time. It is early and it is dark but the weather already feels quite appropriate for the first day of spring except the first day of spring is new to me because I am in a new place. I spent a lot of springs in the Dakotas where warm weather in March can lull you into spring fever so that the April and May blizzards seem colder and more harsh than January’s offerings. I learned the poem about April showers and May flowers in elementary school, but I also know that flowers set out before Memorial Day were likely to get frosted.
Last night, however, when I went out to the car to run an errand, I turned on the windshield wipers and watched as rain mixed with hundreds of pink blossoms from the tree above danced across my field of vision. A couple of blossoms got caught underneath the wipers and made streaks and regular intervals for a couple of blocks until they lost their grip on the car and fluttered in the wind heading to parts unknown.
It really does feel like spring around here. The roses are putting out new shoots, hiding the places where so recently I pruned them. The bushes and trees are sporting new leaves and our neighborhood looks like a scene from the cherry blossom festival replayed in ornamental crab trees with white and pink up and down the street. One of the bushes in the front yard is bursting with red blossoms. I need to look it up and learn its name.
A book of poems by N. Scott Momaday, The Death of Sitting Bear, has been entertaining me. Some of his poems are brief and funny. Some are deep and demand that I read them over and over again.
Momaday is and Oklahoma Kiowa, but I hear the voice of my Lakota friend, Matt Iron Hawk when I read “The Theft of Identity:”
They say my footprints are those of a bear.
Yes, it is true. I crave the mountain air
And find retirement in a lofty lair.
Believe it or not; I really don’t care.
Hey ho yah,
Hey ho yah,
It was Matt’s birthday last week - the day after St. Patricks. But Matt is not of this world any more. It was the Covid that finally got him, though Matt has not seemed to be well for quite a while. Some people thought Matt was gruff and quiet. He was, I guess, but he also was incredibly funny and powerfully wise. He was a native Lakota speaker and became my “go to” translator when I wanted to explore the meaning of a particular word. Matt could play the organ a little bit and he had a beautiful singing voice. If you sing from the Odowon with Matt, you’d better not be in a hurry. He didn’t rush the old hymns. I only heard him sing traditional Lakota Songs once, but he knew a lot of them. I don’t know what Momaday’s Kiowa singing sounds like, but when I read his poems, I hear them in Matt’s voice:
Hey ho yah,
Hey ho yah,
Like Matt, Momaday reflects a deep understanding of the Christian faith that dances alongside his indigenous heritage. Here is his “Couplet in Tongues:”
She spoke language known only to God.
God gave a nod. Nothing to God is odd.
I suppose that I will think of Matt in the springtime every year for the rest of my life. Which is probably good because Matt refuses to make us sad, even when we miss him. He might be sitting by his big wood stove on a chilly spring day. On the other hand he might be driving grandchildren to school. Matt wasn’t one to sit at home all the time.
I’ve been working on my Palm Sunday sermon the past week and I’ll probably make the first recording on Monday - that gives me a couple of days for re-takes if I am not pleased with the first attempt. Palm Sunday always puts me in a Holy Week mood. The pageantry of the Palm Parade quickly fades into the practice of grief. It is on of the deep treasures of Christianity that it teaches us to practice loss and grief and to face death, sorrow and sadness every year so that when we come face to face with grief we are not left without resources.
Our faith doesn’t have a “get out of death free” card. Much better it has the promise that “I will never leave you alone.”
To quote Momaday one more time:
The God in whom I scarcely believe
Is smug with me, tendering forgiveness,
Despite the sign planted near the street corner a couple of blocks from our home, God is not wondering where we will spend eternity. God knows that eternity doesn’t exist in Hell and despite the dire predictions of the faithful one who planted the sign, is about the business of saving everyone. God doesn’t stop loving even when we pretend God is not there. God doesn’t need us to believe in God in order to be God.
Even in this place that is considerably wetter than other places I have lived, I can receive the spring rain as a gift and a sign of God’s love. All of this rain makes for incredibly tall trees and lush dense undergrowth. Dripping ferns carpet the forest floor. If I were Momaday, I could write a poem about the gift of grace in every drop of rain. Alas, I am not and my skills at poetry are very limited.
Matt would make a joke, but he wouldn’t laugh out loud at his own joke. You had to look at the corner of his mouth or the sparkle in his eyes to tell if he was joking. Once, I asked him to help me understand the meaning of the Lakota word Takini, which is often translated “survivor.” He paused and said, “It means we’re still here!” He wasn’t joking that day.
The weather in spring, however, requires a sense of humor.