Summer blizzard

by John Calderazzo

It's snowing in July. Fat snowflakes are drifting sideways as I stand in my Bellvue, Colo., backyard, staring off at Greyrock Mountain and the dropping sun.

But how can this be? It's been 90 degrees since noon.

So I look harder. Not snow!

Thousands of dandelion seeds and cottonwood tufts are floating by, backlit and luminous in the low sun, and the more I look, the more of this blizzard I see. Silk strands of spider webs as long as a fly-fisherman's line. Swirling constellations of moths, butterflies, the tattered wings of butterflies, gnats and split-tailed cliff swallows swooping after the moths and gnats.

What I'm really seeing, I realize, is a gigantic and incandescent river of life, which has been flowing around me all day, maybe even all week. Yet until the sun positioned itself just so and I opened my eyes to accept the world's gift of revelation, I hadn't noticed a thing.

This is why I love -- and occasionally hate -- being a writer and a teacher and, well, a sucker for beauty. The world is just packed with wonderful things, with stories and the shimmering, gorgeous curiosities that send my mind soaring. Awe-inspiring things, large and small, float around us all the time, everywhere. But you don't see them unless you pay attention. And as I keep telling my writing students, it's their job and mine -- our privilege, and sometimes our burden -- to find and flesh out these wonders, to celebrate the extraordinary that's so often coiled inside the ordinary.

Wonders like the elegant white birds I saw banking far overhead at Independence Rock in Wyoming, more than 20 years ago, when I was new to the West.

Rising on the wings of a thermal, turning in a double helix like a kind of celestial DNA, they appeared and disappeared as the sun caught or missed their black-tipped feathers. It was their sky signature, just as the rock I was standing near held the signatures of pioneers who'd once rolled through on wagons.

"What are they?" I asked my wife, SueEllen, a Denver native.

"Pelicans!"

It turned out they were even larger than their coastal cousins, with wings up to eight feet across.
To discover this was a privilege.

Then there was something I discovered one afternoon as I drove cross-country southeast from Colorado, through a flat, tornado-spawning landscape under a sky the color of dirty laundry.

I'd stopped at a restaurant for a taste of local color. As I pushed through a screen door, a growl of distant thunder slipped inside with me. I sat down next to an older guy at the counter, who, I'd noticed, had turned around at the thunder, looking a little startled. He gave me a nod, politely waited until I'd ordered, then introduced himself as a minister.

Here comes the God Talk, I told myself.

But it never came. What I got instead was a story about weather and the human psyche.

There were two brothers he knew from a nearby town -- "the Johnson boys" -- who as kids were pushed under their cinderblock-raised house by their parents just seconds before a twister blasted down on them, destroying the place and turning the boys into orphans.

He paused to sip his coffee. "Well," he said, "those Johnson boys grew up watching out for each other." And nowadays they run a grocery store, and they do fine. But whenever they hear thunder, they drop what they're doing and walk from behind the counter without a word. They hurry down some stairs, and sit for a while in a bunker they've built for themselves. Meanwhile, their customers keep shopping, tallying up their purchases, putting money in the till, making their own change.

"They know what the Johnson boys have been through."

And now I do, too, thanks to the gift of that story, which came floating by chance into my life. To make something significant out of it, and out of the lives of the Johnson boys -- well, that's my burden.

Then there's also plain old joy.

Like the time our miniature dachshund, Marmot, was yapping madly through the window at a deer that was grazing in our front yard. This was standard behavior for him. (For the deer, too.) But on this morning, as he stood huffily on the Druze chest that was his barking platform, his flailing, bony tail struck a Tibetan brass bowl.

The bell rang out, and Marmot stopped cold. He looked back at me as if he'd been struck himself -- as if he'd realized suddenly that Nirvana was an elevated state of mind that even ground-hugging dogs like him could some day rise to.

Wonderful things float all around us, all the time.

John Calderazzo teaches creative writing at Colorado State University and co-directs Changing Climates at CSU, a multi-disciplinary climate change education program.

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