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Kathy Bradley - Maybe we hear better in the dark
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    When I asked Daddy to plant a chinaberry tree in the yard at Sandhill, he looked at me, not for the first time, as though I’d lost my mind.
    “What in the world do you want with a chinaberry tree? That’s the aggravatingest thing I’ve ever seen.”
    I explained to him that there is something quintessentially southern about a chinaberry tree, that it reminds me of old farm steads and bare feet and Sunday afternoons. I tried to get him to understand that I didn’t care that the fallen berries tend to sprout into saplings almost overnight and that they stain anything with which they come in contact. I did my best to convince him that it was a good idea and, eventually, I got my tree.
    In the summer, the delicate branches bloom first with long languid leaves and then hard green berries that droop from their stems with disproportionate weight and always remind me of a pawn shop sign. As the season fades, the berries themselves fade to gold and dry up light and leathery into miniature versions of deflated volleyballs.
    In late fall, the berries fall to the ground and the leaves get blown away and the tree stands naked with its skinny arms stretched toward the clouds as though entreating some divine intercession to cover its embarrassment.
    That’s what I noticed the other morning when I stepped out on the deck to check the temperature. Silhouetted against the dull early morning sky, the tree looked small and vulnerable and not the least best reminiscent of her summer self dancing in the warm breeze.
    Behind her was the harrowed over corn field and beyond that the dried out remnants of kudzu vine wrapped around the trees at the edge of the pond. The world was still and empty and colorless.
    Just as I was about to go back in, I heard geese honking. For far away, probably across somebody’s else farm, they were flying and calling to each other in voices faint, but exquisitely clear and I realized that in the near-empty landscape of winter I could hear other things more clearly, too. Wind chimes and the call of a loon. Dogs barking and the blast of a shotgun. The scurry of an unidentified small animal through the underbrush.
    I’ve often wondered at the reasoning behind the early Christian fathers’ decision to place Christmas in this darkest, coldest part of the year. The carol calls it “the bleak midwinter.” It is said that they simply wanted to piggyback on or, even better, eclipse the existing pagan celebrations that already existed, celebrations rooted in the fear that with each setting of the sun there was the possibility that it might not ever reappear.
    Whatever the reason, it occurs to me that maybe one of the reasons we are called to celebrate the birth of the Christ child in the time of hibernation is that we hear better in the darkness. Without the distraction of spring’s heady scents and summer’s fresh tastes and autumn’s riotous colors, we are left with only the sounds.
    The gasp of a young girl at the sight of an angel and the angel’s whisper, “Fear not.” The scuffling of pilgrims down rocky roads and the harried voices of the census takers in the tiny Palestinian towns. The whimpering of sheep, the lowing of cattle. And the first breathy cries of a newborn.
    It is easy to see the stars out in the country. I can stand in my front yard, tilt my head back and feel all my self-importance drain away. At this time of year, in the bleak midwinter, I can hear them, too. They are singing. And their song is a familiar one, the very first Christmas carol — “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
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