Retail Therapy

I did a bit of retail therapy last week. I had fancied myself immune to that particular vice. Not so! It was merely cruising in the blind spot of my consciousness. Any close observer would have known.

When a fluorescent light at my church starts giving trouble, I convert it to LED tubes. This conceptually simple process, though, generates all sorts of real world delights. Here is an example. The fixtures have a lip at the bottom to hold the diffuser. But that lip prevents pushing the tubes straight up into their sockets; instead, the installer must angle the tube along the diagonal until above the lip, then swing the tube back parallel to the long axis. The designers of these systems apparently thought it would be fun to make the tubes just a little bit longer than the space they are being maneuvered through, so the tube pins would scrape into the fixture’s enamel finish while being wedged into place. Remember that the installer (me) is trying to align two sets of pins, four feet apart, working from a ladder. Now, envision a metal-on-metal scraping that makes fingernails on chalk boards seem like a caress. What fun!

My retail therapy adventure started with some fluorescent-to-LED conversions on my To Do List. Right away, I hit the first of several wrinkles. Each manufacturer of these fixtures has its own ways of doing things. One of the variables is in the style of socket the tubes’ electrical pins snap into. I had encountered at least three styles, and I stock some of each, as the conversion process requires replacing those at one end. Most involve inserting upward with the pins at six and twelve o’clock, then rotating the tube a quarter turn to lock them into place. These were different: just push up with the pins already at three and nine. They snap tight, of course, so the tubes don’t fall out. Apparently, over time, they get even harder to snap out. I pulled until afraid to put any more force on that thin glass tube, finally achieving breakout force by levering a tool between the top of the fixture and the metal caps on the ends of the tubes.

Wrinkle two: The bracket holding the sockets is supposed to snap out, so I can replace them for the conversion. In this case, I had to add a little more persuasion in the form of hammer and punch. (I confess: didn’t have a punch on me, so abused a screwdriver.)

In that happy state of mind, I hit wrinkle three when trying to remove the ballasts. Ballasts slide into slots at one end and are locked into place by a “nut” on a screw at the other. These “nuts” are invariably a stamped steel excuse-for-a-nut, with slick sloping shoulders. Can’t get a wrench into those tight quarters; can’t keep the nose of pliers on the sloping shoulders. The job requires a nut driver. So far, I have needed the 11/32″ size. But this time, I needed a 3/8″, the one size I didn’t have. 

If it had been a one-off need, I would have suffered through a needle-nose plier extraction. But there were eight to be removed in this room alone, and I was in a part of the building almost certain to have this same fixture in other rooms. So I took a break and headed for the big box store. On my way to the tool aisle, I picked up two rolls of painter’s tape. (A couple of days ago, noticing that our tape rolls were almost empty, I had asked Nancy the difference between the green tape and the blue. She replied, “Green is mine, blue is yours.”  Oo-Kaay. Two rolls: one green, one blue.)

At the tool aisle, I found that nut drivers only come in sets. I didn’t need a set: I had five perfectly good nut drivers in my electrical tool box. I only needed a 3/8. Reluctantly, I picked up the set. Then I saw a set of thin pry bars. I need a thin pry bar for removing trim, so I picked up that set, too. 

After checking out, it hit me that I should have tried our locally-owned hardware store first. So I drove there. Yes! They had a single 3/8 nut driver. And a single thin pry bar, not a set! And the perfect size diagonal cutting pliers that I have been looking for, to flesh out my electrical tool box. 

On my way back to the church, I reflected that I had just spent $72. The nut driver that triggered this shopping excursion cost $5. I would later return the pry bar and nut driver sets to the big box, for a refund of $28. Still …

When I first met Nancy, she had three sets of car keys—to enhance her chances of being able to find a set when needed. She had multiple nail clippers, dropping them in random places when done. In defense, I ran a string through the hole in “mine” and screwed the other end of the string to my bathroom vanity drawer so she would not wander off with it.

After her Lasik surgery, Nancy needed the simple magnifying glasses called readers—in multiple magnification powers, for different distances, and many of each power, so she could find them when needed. She bought in quantity at the dollar store. I vividly recall our first meeting with the high school assistant principal. He sat down at the head of the table and began pulling several pairs of readers out of his coat pockets. Nancy at her end of the table was extracting her readers from her purse. They looked at each other and laughed, and I knew we’d get along just fine.

Nancy has gotten much better over the years. And I have gotten worse. I misplace tape measures. And my phone.  One phone will have to do me (thank goodness for FIND MY iPHONE!), but I recently bought a couple more tape measures, so I’d have a better chance of finding one when I need it.

Basic hand tools, such as screwdrivers, pliers, and hammers, get used a lot. We don’t want to run to the basement shop every time we need a #2 Phillips. Most tools are there, of course. But for frequently-used ones, we have duplicated subsets: upstairs, in each car, and in the detached garage. My electrical tool kit is self-contained, so has its own set of screwdrivers and pliers. Nancy has some basic tools in her studio. Recently, she mentioned that my shop screwdrivers were hard for her to reach. We have been doing a lot of work downstairs, so she goes for them frequently. I am perfectly happy with the placement of my screwdrivers above my workbench, so I bought another set for her and made a rack for them just inside the shop door. I don’t know how it goes at your house, but we use screwdrivers as often as forks, and probably own more.

For Nancy

The bottom line is that I like tools, and am adept at excusing my purchases. The tool aisle is the drool aisle. The right tool for the job makes it go faster and safer, right?

On a recent run to the big box store, I needed duct tape. Did you know that duct tape comes in colors? Bright, can’t miss ‘em, colors. Mouth-watering colors. It seemed most were turned so that the Spanish names faced me. Rojo. Amarillo. Verde. Azul. Naranja. I wanted them all! I was frozen with indecision. I must have lingered in front of that display for five minutes, trying to make up my mind. They did have the traditional silver color, but only in the giant size roll. Black would have been an easy choice, but was not on offer. Camo? No! I finally settled for Blanco.

Too Many Choices

I had thought I was done with tool purchases for a while. But I kept seeing ads for block planes. I have wanted a block plane for ages. What woodworker is without a block plane? Our anniversary is coming up, so I bought myself a block plane as an anniversary present. I was restrained. You can get a cheap knockoff at the big box store for about $20. You can get the quality high-end woodworker’s dream for nearly ten times that price. I chose one the middle of the range, a traditional Stanley. Now I am looking for a chance to try it out. A time when the gardening settles down and the church light fixtures quit failing and I can finally get back into my shop full of projects interruptus. That glorious day when I will take on a project and finish it. If I have the right tool.

Triage

It has been a busy summer. We are remodeling two bathrooms, gutting them down to the framing and working back out. Although the physical work is hired out, the disruption of daily living and the time involved in researching and selecting materials still have a huge impact on our capacity to carry on with normal activities. Two years after buying this place, we still don’t feel settled in. 

The big event of our summer, however, was a trip to Ireland—two weeks with our church choir (and some groupies). We sang Choral Eucharist and Choral Evensong at St. Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast one weekend and at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin the next, plus a public performance at Bangor Abbey, our choirmaster’s home parish. As in all my musical undertakings, I feel I am the least talented and least experienced of the group. The music was difficult, and there was lots of it. So, telling about those experiences is much more fun than was the actual doing. 

The debut performance of Handel’s “Messiah” occurred just a few dozen yards from Christ Church Cathedral, and its choir, plus that of nearby St. Patrick’s, comprised the original chorus. We sat in the stalls of that choir and sang for eucharist and evensong in that church! Our recessional passed under its great organ just as Emma, our organist, hit the lowest, most powerful notes of her postlude. Those vibrations stay with you long after the physical echos have died away!

To get to the bell ringers’ chamber in the belfry requires climbing a narrow spiral tower from the south transept, and traversing an outdoor catwalk along the base of the transept roof. In ancient times, we were told, the belfry was also the treasure vault. The narrow spiral approach, corkscrewing clockwise as you climb, was designed to put an attacking (right-handed) swordsman at a disadvantage. I never realized these places did duty as forts!

View from Transept Roof

For all that, the most memorable parts of the trip were the more traditional tourist things. When asked about strongest impressions, favorite experiences, etc., I give some variant on “everything.” Was it the wild northern coast of County Antrim, or the crowded streets of Dublin with buskers on every corner? Or maybe the ancient stone ruins? The invariably lovely countryside? The food, the friendly people, the coffee? Ah, the coffee! And flowers everywhere!

Coast, County Antrim
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
Dublin Street

Nearly everywhere you go along the Northern Ireland coast has a sign with a variant of “Game of Thrones, Season x, Episode y filmed here!” We were in and around Portrush a week before The Open. Astounding, the logistics of putting on a major golfing event in a fairly isolated location! Hundreds of acres of temporary structures, some 30 by 40 feet and two stories high! We stayed at the nearby Giant’s Causeway Hotel, a Fawlty Towers-looking structure set amidst the lushest meadows imaginable, edged by clifftops a hundred meters above the North Atlantic Ocean. The Causeway’s polygonal basalt columns are a marvel, but an after dinner, almost dusk walk along the clifftop meadows is the memory that feeds my soul.

Clifftop Meadow

We actually spent more time in the big cities. There, too, delights abound. St. George’s Market in Belfast, with its handcrafts and culinary temptations and Tennessee flags. (Nashville is a sister city.) A gourmet dinner on our “private” open-air balcony atop a department store. (Actually, that balcony would hold thirty diners, but all the other patrons that night preferred the smoking balcony.) Another dinner, a seafood mezza, at a Lebanese restaurant in Dublin. Extravagant floral displays in gardens and window boxes. Public art. Even rural roundabouts might have towering sculptures! And walking, walking, walking. One day, our phone app clocked nine miles of random “let’s see where this goes” meandering.

Mezza—Appetizer Course

Typically, when Nancy and I travel, we are ready to go home by the third day. Not since our honeymoon have we had a two-week vacation. I am happy to say two weeks was not too long. Still, it’s nice to be home.

The weeds did not go on vacation during our absence, and we are in a fight to prevent the mulberry weed and stiltgrass from going to seed. But those gardening activities have to compete for our limited time and energy. Church, band, the remodeling project—all want a piece of us. 

Three weeks after our return, we hosted the four grandkids and their parents. At the beginning of that three-week countdown, the downstairs room the kids were to sleep in had no ceiling and, in a few places, no subfloor in the still-under-construction bathroom above. The furniture from that room, plus construction tools and supplies filled the rest of our downstairs guest spaces. It would have been a busy three weeks even without the stiltgrass and band and other components of our everyday lives.

“No matter our vocation, we so often find ourselves living life as a form of triage.” (Michael Perry, Truck: A Love Story). 

Amen! Testify! Even in retirement. Even without remodeling.

Our house is surrounded by trees—mature trees that not infrequently shed parts of themselves. Even the slightest of rain showers seems to bring down one or more sticks you’re grateful not to have been underneath when it fell. Once last year I found a thirty-foot long limb at the edge of our meadow—a seemingly healthy arm ripped from an eighty-foot tulip tree. Did I sleep through a windstorm? Did an otherwise benign shower generate a freak localized burst of turbulence just fifty yards from my bedroom window?

Three days ago, I found an even bigger widow-maker in the driveway back to our garage. I stepped off about forty feet of chestnut oak, nine inches in diameter at the butt. This one, at least, was dead wood—woodpeckers had been at it. It seems to have taken a tip-first dive, then toppled sideways down the embankment to land ten feet laterally from the plane of its fall.

The source tree was one of a cluster of three big chestnut oaks covered with English ivy, the removal of which had not yet risen to the top of our priority list. As the widow maker had damaged a rhododendron at the tree’s base, I climbed the bank to trim away the broken branches. While up there, I removed ivy from the trunks of the oaks, and Nancy resumed her long-interrupted task of clearing it from the forest floor. Triage.

Fortunately, that rhody is not a well behaved lawn shrub; it has gone native and formed the beginnings of a “laurel hell.” Loss of a few branches soon won’t make a noticeable gap in its overall form. 

The ivy is bound for the landfill; can’t risk its taking root again. The widow maker and its rhody victim I cut up and hauled downslope. Half a ton of matter added to our brush pile.

Yes, our place generates lots of work. But pleasures also. From our deck, we daily watch the antics of the hummingbirds, the clouds, the windmills on Buffalo Mountain. From the deck, I noticed the snakeskin in the redbud. That eighteen- or twenty-inch juvenile had climbed twenty-five feet up the tree and slithered out of its skin on branch tips so small you’d think they would not support a goldfinch. Just in the last week we’ve seen our raptors at hood ornament height on prey-catching trajectories just in front of our moving cars: the barred owl across Nancy’s bow one night; the red-shouldered hawk across mine the next day.

Snake Skin in Redbud

For two glorious weeks in Ireland, we put the daily demands aside and walked new paths. Even now, back to “real life,” I am blessed that my daily triage involves mostly responsibilities willingly chosen.

Our interim rector recently used the following prayer:

Gracious Lord, we thank you for setting before us tasks which demand our best efforts and lead us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us. What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done; let it be. Let us look expectantly to a new day, new joys, and new possibilities. Let us leave the past behind and look towards the future that you hold for us.  Help us to be thankful, joyful, and expectant for all you have done and will continue to do. In the name of the One who leads us forth. Amen.

Sightings

Looking down on the meadow below our deck, first time visitors to our new place often say, “You must see lots of deer down there.” No, not really. I did see three of them grazing their way up the slope this morning when I took my breakfast out onto the deck. But that was a rarity. We saw far more deer at our old place, a tight suburban neighborhood, than we do here, where the nearest neighbor is a hundred yards away.

Nancy still misses the frogs we left behind at the old place, and we still puzzle over where to construct a small pond. Frogs and deer notwithstanding, we see lots of wildlife. Before the weather turned warm enough to use the deck, I would spend my morning contemplative time at our bedroom window. Most mornings, the ground was alive with chipmunks and squirrels and rabbits, robins and chickadees and birds I cannot identify. We’ve woodpeckers—pileated and downy, the occasional turkey, a glimpse of a coyote. A red-shouldered hawk is a frequent sighting. And, of course, crows.

The prize is “our” barred owl. The first spring here, I spotted it perched high in a tulip tree. Later, on a dusk walk with Mona, it startled us by rising out of a neighbor’s yard into a nearby dogwood. Apparently, we had interrupted dinner. Three times last winter, my truck and that owl almost collided as I was driving home at night and it was swooping across the street in front of me, presumably aiming toward mice in roadside garbage. More recently, we have been hearing mating calls in the night and have seen it twice in early morning hours, perched just a few feet off the ground in a small tree, awaiting breakfast.

Our son’s dog alerted us to the skunk disappearing underneath our porch. (Fortunately, he was inside looking out the window.) Our builder, who once had a wildlife control business, recommended that we let it alone. That space couldn’t readily be made skunk-proof, and the skunk was not harming anything and might be useful in keeping the yellowjacket and grub populations under control. Days later, he saw a litter of skunklets (kits) out for a noontime romp. So far, no stink.

Last year, we reported on the crazed bluebirds banging on our windows. I am happy to report that this year they have settled down to nesting. Nancy has spotted pairs in all three of our bird houses.

In the past week, we have had a blacksnake hanging around the house. (I usually say “blacksnake” because I cannot reliably distinguish between a black racer, black king snake, and black rat snake. This one, I think, is a rat snake, as it still has some of the markings of a juvenile.) Ordinarily, I would not think this unusual, given the number of chipmunks we host. But it most recently ventured up onto our deck. What prey could it be looking for up here? Possibly, the hummingbirds that visit our feeder. However, given the location of the other sightings, I suspect it is trying to find a way up to the gable peak around the corner, where a pair of phoebes built a nest on the remnant of the old power cable that use to feed the garage.

Our landscaping ambition for this place has always been to move it more toward native plants and away from non-natives. That ambition was reinforced on discovering the book, The Living Landscape, by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy. Subtitled, “Designing for beauty and biodiversity in the home garden,” the book argues that we cannot depend on a few large nature preserves (e.g., the Smokies) to preserve biodiversity, and that suburban lawns and gardens have an important role to play. The authors are not opposed to non-native plants, and indeed use some in their own gardens. But they note that an urban/suburban landscape that is highly fragmented and primarily planted in non-native species does not support native wildlife. As an example, they note that plant-eating insects (e.g., butterfly larvae) are adapted to specific plants, and that non-native shrubs from Asia, even those that have been in North America for hundreds of years, have proved resistant to becoming a food source for native insects. That is good for the shrub, but the larvae are critical food sources for baby song birds. A suburban landscape of non-natives does not support the butterfly larvae, which in turn do not support the song birds, and thus becomes much less diverse.

Over the past few weeks, the property downslope from us was partially cleared. Much of the loss was kudzu, and we still have a buffer strip between us and the cleared land. Still, it is another disruption to the movement and sheltering of native fauna, and yet another reason for us to root out the invasives, thin the exotics, and plant more natives, restoring something closer to the native landscape in the small patch of earth we take care of. We intend to be kind to our fine feathered (and furred and scaled) friends, and hope to see more of them in the years to come.

Travel Bares All

Travelers on I-75 through central Florida will likely be familiar with the proclamation, “We Bare All” on dozens of billboards, advertising the strip joint at Micanopy. While I admit to some curiosity and titillation, that’s not the reason those words were running around in my thoughts. Bare all. Bear all.

I have been re-reading Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, by Kathleen Norris. Her piece on detachment has this quote:

One sixth century monk, Dorotheus of Gaza, describes detachment as “being free from [wanting] certain things to happen,” and remaining so trusting of God that “what is happening will be the thing you want and you will be at peace with all.”

Norris goes on to say, “This sort of detachment is neither passive nor remote but paradoxically is fully engaged with the world. It is not resignation, but a vigilance that allows a person to recognize that whatever comes is a gift from God.” Richard Rohr calls it “death transformed.” A bit of ego dies, and something better arises in its place. We accept what we cannot change, and in the letting go of the futile wish that circumstances were different, we find the gift that was waiting. Something like detachment is a part of every wisdom tradition: Christian, Buddhist, etc.

I think the reason “bare all, bear all” was in my thoughts is that I am slowly coming to admit there is something I need to let go: a desire that has haunted me, poisoned me, for a long time. I cannot fulfill that desire; I need to accept that fact and embrace what I do have. I am still far from any detachment on this issue—depressed by the coming death and not at all trusting in a subsequent re-birth. While I would like to say I “bear” it with detachment, I am currently “bearing” with self-pity and resentment. 

In this frame of mind yesterday, I hit the mess that is Georgia highways. We were doing the Spring migration of Nancy’s snowbird parents, she driving the girls’ car and me driving the boys’.  I had seen a single warning, fifty miles or so in advance, that the right lane was to be closed during the weekend at mile xx on I-475, the bypass around Macon. There seem to be two kinds of drivers regarding lane closures: suckers (e.g., me) who move over immediately, and __ (another s-word comes to mind) who try to push to the head of the line by ignoring the warnings and then expect suckers to let them in at the last minute. Having seen the warning 50 miles back, and being of the sucker tribe, when I suddenly hit the traffic slowdown, I moved to the left lane.

But there is another reasonable response to a sudden slowdown, especially an unexpected one. (And a single warning 50 miles in advance is totally inadequate.) That response, which I once had ingrained but had not had to practice recently, is to take the nearest exit and evaluate alternatives. Nancy, some distance behind me, had just enough time to duck for what turned out be the last exit in a six-mile backup. Nancy breezed around the backup, in which I would be  trapped for nearly an hour and a half.

I judge the Georgia highway department in this instance to be either spectacularly incompetent or actively venal. They could have warned of large delays and urged finding an alternate route (there are at least two), but that might inconvenience the locals. Their neglect placed the entire burden on thousands and thousands of unsuspecting through-travelers. Adding insult to injury, this construction, scheduled for weekend hours, was totally unmanned when I passed at three on Saturday afternoon. The workers had quit for the day.

It got worse. Nancy, now an hour and a quarter ahead of me, hit more and more slowdowns, ones she could not drive around. Warning me of misery to come, she suggested I strike out across country in an effort to avoid the interstate. We have successfully enjoyed this kind of meandering before,  me driving and she navigating and exploring online. But this time, the strategy failed. Atlanta is just too big. I headed toward Athens to get away from the multiple snafus of the big city, then north to Gainesville, then through the Appalachian foothills into Tennessee. But every resident of Georgia chose this afternoon to take a leisurely drive, instead of staying home and watching whatever sport is currently in season. My father-in-law helped navigate and stayed in good humor, but the outcome was that we lost another hour and a quarter. We pulled into Oak Ridge two and a half hours after Nancy and her mother. What should have been an eleven and a half hour drive took me fifteen and a half hours.

Where does “bares all” comes into the picture? If you can think of a negative trait, I probably exhibited it yesterday afternoon. My very first reaction, when Nancy phoned to say she had gotten around the first backup, was anger and envy. As the day wore on, I added profanity, whining, despair. I tried, I really did, to take a more detached view of my predicament. I practiced my mindful breathing routines. I noted the beauty of the foothills and lakes. I thought of those not just inconvenienced for a few hours, but in seriously desperate straits: journalists and dissidents jailed and brutalized by despots, refugees from war and rampant civil disorder huddled at the borders of unwelcoming countries, my own among them. But truly, I was not the poster boy for detachment. Hours later, I am still wound up, still stewing.

And did you catch how I tried to distance myself from my baser self in the title? Not “I Bare All” but “Travel Bares All.” It wasn’t me; the devil made me do it.

As we kept in touch by phone during the long ordeal, Nancy kept saying, “You have to blog about this.” I suspect she had in mind my taking a humorous slant on the afternoon. In time, I suppose I will be able to do that. But for now, what stands out for me is embarrassment at what the afternoon revealed about me and how hard it is to let go what is old and not working and to embrace what is yet to be revealed.

Mona

We had to let Mona go last week. At 14 years, she had been showing her age. Declining mobility in her hindquarters put her on a daily regimen of pain killers and other medications. She always reminded us when it was time for her twice-daily doses and would hound us until we delivered—most likely because meds were served up with a dollop of peanut butter. (“A spoonful of peanut butter helps the medicine go down.”—Mary Pup-pins.)

Despite the meds, she’d sometimes fall down when in an awkward position, struggled to remain standing long enough to eat her kibble, and had recently reached the point being unable to climb the stairs from our basement. Yet, on her daily walks up the street, she would often insist on taking the long way around rather than turning back early. Later in the day, she would usually lead us down to the meadow, where, after a good poop, she would run and prance like a puppy. 

Pancreatitis was the last straw. After three days in doggy hospital, we had a choice: insert a new intravenous catheter and extend her stay, or do a “home trial” to see if she would rally in more familiar surroundings. Her night at home was agony. Of all the things we tried to ease her suffering, the most effective was to slip a sling under her and help her to walk out the driveway and around the cul-de-sac. The different position gave her some relief, or at least a distraction. On coming back inside, she would fall asleep for a time, until the pain took over again. We were back at the vet’s as soon as they opened. In her own way, she gave clear indication that she had had enough. Exhausted from the pain, she did not even protest at being back. Perhaps was unaware.

My most poignant memory of that last night is from one of those walks out the driveway. She stood and faced the meadow, inhaling the gentle upslope breeze, seemingly taking her leave of that beloved place. 

I have long been intentional, if not always faithful, in observing a set of disciplines—some daily, some weekly, some seasonal—what in monastic traditions is called a “rule of life.” As it happens, I am being aided in re-evaluating, renewing, and re-energizing my own rule of life, through two adult forum series at my church and through a secular series of classes given by the holistic medical practice of which I am a member. Mona had her own set of daily disciplines. Her day was not complete without a walk in the meadow and a nap on the sofa, resting her head on the thigh of one of her people. Not a bad rule of life. And since, for her, these were communal activities, they were a part of my own. From her earliest days, she was the dog who called me to Sabbath.

This year’s sequence of spring flowering has coincided with memorable dates. The snowdrops by the garage were in full flower on the early February birthday of our youngest son. The purple crocus by the mailbox appeared in sudden glory on Valentine’s Day. The daffodils in the meadow opened in splendor on the day Mona died. Her body rests in Mona’s Meadow, where her spirit still runs and plays.

John Henry (21st Century Version)

One recent morning, our new neighbor discovered a fallen tree across her driveway. Blocked in; husband out of town; couldn’t get their chainsaw started; did we know any tree guys? Well, yeah, but not cheap, and not likely to be quick about it. 

I went out to take a look. The sweet smell of red oak, freshly broken open; about 16 inches in diameter where it crossed the driveway. Hmm. I bet we can handle this. 

I have three large log-cutting saws mounted on the wall of our living room. Two are ancient—six-foot two-person cross cut saws, one from each of my grandfathers. The paternal one is covered with enough rust scale to render it useless as a tool, but the maternal one is in good shape except for the dry-rotted handles. It has been used in this century; that’s when one weakened handle broke. Someday, I will make new ones. 

The third saw I bought new, 40-some years ago. It’s about three feet long, variously called a one-person cross-cut or a bucking saw. Straight from the factory, it was a disaster—teeth filed to random lengths and with no “set.” I had to re-file all the teeth and, lacking a saw set for such large teeth, set them with a small hammer. It took me years of off-and-on effort to get it working reasonably well. That’s the tool I took off the wall. 

The saw did me proud. In fact, I cannot remember a time that it cut better. We moved the secondary handle into two-person mode, and with the neighbor on one end and me on the other, we made short work of that oak.

The Saw and the Tree

Later that same morning, Nancy and I were removing leaves from our cul de sac. Nancy, with “her” leaf blower, would push them up into a dense pile. Then I would use a leaf rake to move the pile to the curb. Nancy was amused that I preferred the leaf rake, and mentioned Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel (old vs. new technology). I countered with John Henry against the steam drill (man vs. machine). 

It’s not nearly the same, of course. Mike Mulligan and John Henry, and the Luddites before them, were concerned about job security. While I have sometimes jumped onto a self-righteous soapbox, in truth my issues are merely personal preference. 

I don’t object to modern power tools. I have written before about our electrically-powered “Goat.” Additionally, we own two leaf blowers, a string trimmer, and a lawn mower—all cordless electrics with 21st-century battery and control technology. But there are times when a simpler tool works better for me. Take the task of moving leaves. 

I like my blower. (We have “his” and “hers;” hers is a later purchase, more powerful and quieter than mine.) They are great for moving a light density of leaves into piles or windrows. But when the pile gets large, a stream of air seems an inefficient way to make progress. That’s when I prefer a leaf rake and a tarp.

Nancy keeps reminding me how her physiology is different than mine—the mechanics of using the leaf rake don’t come easily to her. (This from the woman who can sit or crouch for hours at a time pounding paver bricks level with a rubber mallet. For me, ten minutes of that would have my back in torment. Different physiology.) If I had been elsewhere that morning, she would have finished the job just fine with her blower. She might have needed to draw on her backup battery, but that’s what it’s for.

What I most object to in fall leaf cleanup is the second hand noise of others doing the job with an ear-splitting gasoline-powered blower. I recently saw a cartoon in which a group of lab-coated types were staring at a whiteboard covered with formulas and diagrams. At the top of the board was the project goal: Design a quiet leaf blower. And one scientist was saying to the rest that they should give up and move on to something feasible, such as putting man on Mars. As I said earlier, we own two quiet blowers, so I know it is possible to move air with force and little noise—IF you are not wedded to gasoline engines. 

We have discussed getting a chain saw. Maybe one is in our future, but so far, I have resisted. Partly, I am not convinced that our need is great enough to justify the expense because most of what I cut can be easily done with a pruning saw. Then there is the safely angle.  A chainsaw is a dangerous tool at best. On our steep terrain, with me at an age when balance begins to decline, is it worth the risk? If I ever succumb to the lure of a chainsaw, it will almost certainly be a cordless electric. Noise is only part of my aversion to gasoline engines; their care and feeding is at least as big a drawback. My electric tools always start and never leave oily smells on my skin and clothing.

I recently encountered a website devoted to use of the scythe for haying and maintaining farm pastures. I once owned a scythe, sold it, regretted that decision, bought another. For some uses, I have not found a better tool. The website reinforced for me how little I know about using and, most especially, sharpening a scythe. I had never heard of peening one. I am not even sure that my cheap blade, stamped, not forged, is capable of being peened. I have had my scythe out a few times since we moved here, unsuccessfully tackling the mess in my meadow. Now I am inspired to keep trying. One thing’s for certain—I am not buying a gasoline-powered mowing monster for that meadow. We will find another way.

I have three antique wooden bodied woodworking planes, also displayed in our living room with the saws. One is missing its handle; one is structurally compromised; all are fussy to use, lacking the adjusting screws and levers of your basic metal-bodied Stanley from 150 years ago. I am not masochist enough to try to use them for real work, yet proud to say I have been able to coax a few good shavings from each. And, yes, there are web pages devoted to using wood-bodied planes, or even making your own. Maybe, someday.

Two closing thoughts: First, the author of the scything website mentioned that, for him, swinging a scythe across his meadow was a form of meditation. I get that. I have come as close to a meditative state while using hand tools as I ever did while practicing centering prayer. (Aside: This week’s Economist has an obituary on Fr. Thomas Keating, the father of centering prayer.) 

Second, to repeat, I maintain and use hand tools because I enjoy them. There is a special pleasure in felling a dead tree with my grandfather’s crosscut saw, or filing and setting the teeth on my bucking saw. Some fish. Some travel. Some read or knit or train bonsai. A former work colleague studied string theory for fun. No John Henry am I, no Paul Bunyan. Just a dilettante having fun.

Next Year

I once read about the Native American three sisters garden: A symbiotic mixture of corn and beans and squash (the three sisters). The corn provides the pole for the beans to climb, the squash provide a root-shading, weed-suppressing ground cover, the beans fix nitrogen for the trio. And the resulting produce is a nutritionally balanced diet. This summer was the first we had lived in a place with enough sunlight to grow vegetables, so I thought I’d give the three sisters a try.

Not a Threat!

As the photo shows, my garden is not a threat to the commercial food industry. That is my entire corn crop. The corn had stopped growing at about knee height, and I had to scaffold a substitute for the beans to grow on. The squash grew normally for a while, flowered but never set any fruit, then overnight disappeared entirely. I did get two subsequent pickings of beans—and remembered that I don’t like string beans. Ugh!

Breakfast Beginnings

Nancy, meanwhile, grew cherry tomatoes, peppers, basil, oregano, and thyme in pots on the deck, flavoring our breakfast scramblers all summer long.

A Blackoak Ridge Breakfast

I’m the country boy, scion of farm-raised parents. As a child, I helped plant, hoe, pick, and preserve bushels of beans and peas and corn and tomatoes and potatoes. Year after year after year. Nancy, suburban girl, is no stranger to growing food, but on a smaller scale. What can I say? Pride goeth before the fall.

Next year, I’ll try something else. Sugar peas, maybe. I like peas. Zucchini? Has anyone ever produced too little zucchini? 

“Next year … “ Is it just me, or is that the refrain of all gardeners? “Next year, I will try different varieties.” “Next year, I will plant earlier (or later), fertilize better, keep the weeds down.”

I’ve become increasingly aware of “next year” since I retired, and Nancy and I took on responsibility for some of the ornamental gardens at church. We are always behind on the in-season weed control and the out-of-season dividing and moving and digging out and adding in. “Next year, I’ll get those those toad lilies divided.” “Next year, I’ll clear out that overgrown corner and start again.”  “Next year, I’ll keep the mulberry weed and thistle from going to seed, eliminate the vinca and the poison ivy.” Yeah, right!

At our old house, Nancy had, over a period of years, achieved a low-maintenance, largely native plant landscape around the house. In our woods, I had kept the poison ivy under control, and together we had held the neighbor’s English ivy at bay. Now we are in a new place, twice as large. The trees in our woods are furry with a decades-old infestation of English ivy. Poison ivy is abundant. In the open meadow, we are “blessed” with ground ivy and Japanese stilt-grass. From what I read, even goats won’t eat the stilt-grass. To make matters worse, I let it go to seed this year, because I got behind and wasn’t paying attention! What fun to look forward to “next year!” To be honest, we had stilt grass and ground ivy at the old place as well, but so much less! Have we bitten off more than we can chew?

We have a dream, a vision. In our vision, our woods have only native plants (minus the poison ivy). The meadow is kept open with native grasses and wildflowers. There are paths and nooks and benches. A frog pond (or two). Can we get there in our lifetimes? It’s impossible to forecast. But, so long as our health holds, each year will see some progress. And there will always be a To Do List for next year.

Meandering

Family business took us to the Florida Suncoast. We had planned to spend two days on the beach before returning to Tennessee: One day driving south, two days relaxing, one day un-relaxing on the return trip. Four days seems to be our limit for travel these days. Obligations, real and imagined, are the excuse, but frankly, we get antsy after a few days. Projects at home beckon.  

Florida’s “red tide” outbreak led us to cancel our beachside reservation shortly before departure, so we headed south with no more plan than to make it up as we went along. 

Day 1—Long and tiring, but mission accomplished. If not for the red tide, we’d have spent the rest of the trip at familiar places, restaurants, and activities. Instead, we had a three-day meander back home, filled with the unfamiliar. New routes, hotels, restaurants, and sights. And not a single mile on Interstate highways.

Day 2—From Tampa into Central Florida for our first-ever visit to Bok Tower Gardens.  Edward Bok was a Dutch immigrant. In 1889, at the age of twenty-six, he became editor of Ladies Home Journal, a post he held for thirty years and from which he changed American taste in household architecture and interior design. For instance, he published inexpensive house plans, to the dismay of architects. He converted the over-furnished and underutilized “parlor” into the “living room” as the nation was recovering from the influenza pandemic during which the all-too-often use of that room had been for laying out deceased family members. His autobiography won a Pulitzer.

As an encore, he acquired the top of a nearly barren Florida sand hill (the highest on the peninsula) and commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (yes, there was a Junior who followed in his father’s footsteps) to create a tropical paradise. The resulting “contemplative garden” is a haven for birds and butterflies and endangered plants (and people), with a gorgeous carillon tower and scores of nooks from which to enjoy the beauty in semi-privacy. Probably the most pleasant three hours I have ever spent at a tourist destination. 

Carillon Tower, Bok Tower Gardens

The day was still young, so we scurried back to the Gulf coast (safely north of the red tide) for sunset at Crystal River. Nancy finished off the day with a 50-Cedar-Key-clams-for-ten-dollars special, while I had Thai curry at an adjacent restaurant. The combination of sunset and seafood satisfied Nancy’s two criteria for a satisfactory trip; all else was gravy.

Days 3 and 4—Homeward bound via US19 along Florida’s gulf coast, US 27 through western Georgia, and TN58 from Chattanooga. Nothing on our familiar I-75 route remotely approaches the scenery we enjoyed almost constantly on that two-day, 650-mile drive. 

Georgia has 159 counties. They are, on average, about half the size of those in neighboring South Carolina. An advantage, I suppose, of small counties is that more towns get to be county seats. I don’t think we drove through a single town big enough to have a MacDonalds that did not also have a court house. At least one had a courthouse and no MacDonalds.

We stopped at Providence Canyon State Outdoor Recreation Area in southern Georgia. Providence Canyon is a monument to environmental naivety: poor farming practices greatly accelerated erosion of the very vulnerable soils, creating massive gullies up to 150 feet deep. The nearly vertical canyon walls display a range of colors that rivals in beauty if not scale the spectacular canyons of the American Southwest. 

Providence Canyon

That was our second trip in as many months. A local friend wanted to buy some timpani. Nancy’s cousin in Chicago had two for sale. Take a break from the home projects and visit Chicago? Yes! We’ll do the transporting! We stayed in a boutique hotel right on the Chicago River and spent Friday evening and Saturday morning on foot, ogling the city’s architecture. By sheer good fortune, the weekend we chose for the trip coincided with an international dance festival in Millennium Park, just blocks from our hotel, and the samba band in which Nancy’s cousin plays was one of the featured acts. We joined the impromptu parade as the drummers and their troupe of dancers, clad in lots of feathers and not so much fabric, wound their way through the park and onto the main stage.

Samba dancers in Millenium Park

Sunday we meandered our way toward the northwestern suburbs to spend time with Nancy’s cousin and his family and her aunt and uncle, with a brief stop at the Baha’i Temple. An off-Interstate jog through the Kentucky bluegrass broke the tedium of the long return drive. Four days. Just right.

I’d be remiss in any narration of travel not to mention the food gems found along the way. When we’re traveling and stopped for a few days or just overnight, a good meal seems … well … expected and, thus, unexceptional. But when we’re driving and find a special alternative to the fast food chains … those memories linger. I’m thinking fondly now of the Kind Roots Cafe (Lexington, VA), and Bone Fire Smokehouse at the Hardware (Abingdon, VA), discovered on our trips to visit grandkids. And Chapati (Pakistani, Indianapolis, IN) and Masala (Indian buffet, Richmond, KY) from our Chicago trip. The latest of these treasures is Jerusalem Grill in Rome, Georgia. The staff is most helpful and their shawarma is not to be missed!

“Not all those who wander are lost” wrote Tolkien.

Labels

“Nothing’s free anymore, unless you’re a liberal!”

We had each somehow stumbled into one of those wrong-way elevator trips and, as it finally reversed, I had made some comment about getting a free ride.

His reply stunned me and has haunted me for weeks. The words on paper are stark enough. In the flesh, their impact was jarring. He and I were alone on the elevator, and nothing in our silent half minute together before his statement was remotely political. Yet the words as delivered, complete with voice tone and body language, carried true vitriol.

I have spent time and energy parsing the words. Does he mean that liberals act as if some things are free, or is he saying that liberals indeed receive freebies from which non-liberals are excluded? Does “anymore” imply that once upon a time, something was free but is no longer?

I have explored—briefly—the definitions and histories of the various manifestations of the liberal tradition, from the seventeenth century until today. It’s an exercise that leaves my head spinning and reminds me why I never enjoyed philosophy. 

These are, I recognize, attempts to distance myself from the visceral reality of the encounter. The anger. His. And mine.

He did not hurl the insult at me personally. Maybe he thought I was a fellow … (whatever label he would give himself; “conservative” seems too mild). But I’ll accept the “liberal” label, even wear it proudly. That’s largely my own visceral and vitriolic reaction—my caricature of “conservative” against his caricature of “liberal.” If he and I were able to carry on a civil conversation, would both our positions be more nuanced? Would we find some common ground? I’ll never know.

I wear other labels, and most are imperfect. “Writer,” for instance. Over the past several decades, I have both embraced and rejected that label. Embraced because I’d like it to be true; distanced when I doubted deserving the honor. By some definitions, a writer is one who writes, indeed one who cannot not write. Confession: the lengthy gaps between posts on this blog are not filled by literary output in any other forum. So, between posts, am I no longer a writer? I don’t lose my God-given talent for stringing words together during those dry spells. But I often wonder whether I have anything to say with those strings of words. It’s different from “writer’s block.” I’m not a frustrated writer when not writing. More often, I’m wearing another label.

“Lazy” might sometimes apply, but let’s stick with nouns. Labels I would happily claim include “gardener,” “woodworker,” “do-it-yourselfer.” In my working career, I claimed “economist” and “engineer.” In my younger days, “backpacker.” I also claim “journal-er” (i.e., one who journals) and “contemplative.”

“Musician” is a new label for me, and one with fewer bona fides. Despite two painful years of childhood piano lessons and some choral singing in my younger adulthood, only within the past few years have considered myself a musician, specifically “singer.” 

Even more recent is my halting attempt to become an “instrumentalist,” a “percussionist.” By virtue of Nancy’s strong-arming (and her believing in me), I am a not-totally-deadweight member of one of her bands, capable of banging out a regular two-or-four-beats-per-measure rhythm on a bass drum and occasionally bringing in a cymbal crash or triangle note at the right time. Keeping up with where we are in the score or reading a more complicated rhythm or quickly switching from drum to woodblock to cowbell—well, let’s just say I have a lot to learn.

What I notice as I write this piece is that the labels I embrace are vocational/avocational.   They describe me, yet allow me to be multidimensional, to be more than the label. The ones I’d rather not claim are tribal. Political labels—conservative, liberal—at least as used in public discourse, are tribal. They separate my tribe (the good guys) from your tribe (the bad guys). How else to hear the scorn in my elevator companion’s “liberal” (likewise the “conservative” I silently voiced back at him). It’s as if we’d shouted “I’m a Vol and you’re a Gator,” only with more acid, if that’s possible.

Unfortunately, labels of nationality, regionality, ethnicity, and religion, as with politics, are mostly used in the tribal sense, to separate us from the other. It is true that I am an American and a Christian. Yet when I hear people claim those labels (or their own tribal equivalent), I frequently hear exclusion. I cringe; I don’t want to be in that kind of tribe.

Let me take this idea of labels in another direction.

For the past couple weeks, I have frequently found Nancy in her studio, painting. “That don’t mean a thing to you, but it does to me.” [See footnote] I know how much Nancy has longed to get back to her art, both to have the space and time, and to have the inspiration. So, seeing her at work/play, with paint-stained fingers, happily creating again, is a source of joy for me, too. 

And, as I watch her work, I see a coming back to true self. That idea, found in various literature—on vocation, on creativity, on spirituality—asserts that there is in each of us a wholeness that we lose sight of and must re-discover. (For an introduction to one thread of this literature, see Richard Rohr’s meditation for July 31.) Is that not what we mean by vocation/avocation? What is it that brings us deep joy? Acting out of our truest, deepest, God-given nature. 

Any name that we give to this deepest, truest self will be inadequate. Nancy is an artist, a painter. But that is not the entirety of her being, and the labels do not attempt to confine her to that box. So that’s the distinction I wish to make. Some labels build up, invoke joy, leave open; others tear down, invoke scorn, enclose. Or, in the words of a song I once heard, Some things do and some things don’t lead us to higher ground. May the labels you attach to yourself and those you bestow on your neighbor lead you both to higher ground.

Footnote: The best road trips are those on which we allow for interesting side trips. So we unabashedly move off-topic here to enjoy some gems of Americana music. The line, “That don’t mean a thing to you, but it does to me,” perfectly conveyed what I wanted to say there. And it took me on a side trip to the source, Lori McKenna’s song, “Lorraine.” Take that trip with me. You can find it on YouTube, and probably many other sources. Likewise, I recommend a trip to Gretchen Peters’ website and a listen to her rendition of Stephanie Davis’ song, “Wolves.” (Not Selena Gomez’ totally different song with the same title!) “Wolves” popped into my head while musing on the exchange with my elevator companion, which, fairly or not, led to musing on the plight of refugees. Both songs are powerful. Both artists are superb talents. I invite you to extend your side trip and explore more of their music. Practitioners of theological reflection will find much to reflect on. Some of my McKenna favorites include “You Get A Love Song,” “If He Tried,” “All I Ever Do,” “If You Ask,” “One Man.” Favorites by Peters include “Everything Falls Away,” “Five Minutes,” “Little World,” “Jubilee,” “The Cure for the Pain,” “Guadalupe.”

Soul Gardening

“How are you today?” It’s my chiropractor’s usual opening line.

“OK, ’til half an hour ago,” I reply, “then my back said, ‘We’re done!’”

I had been facing uphill on a 45 degree slope, bent over, digging a trench for a drain line. 

I have been here often enough to know the signs. When my erectors seem on the edge of spasm, I heed the warnings. I had hurriedly showered and driven to his office before he closed for lunch. With a quick adjustment, and the admonition to put ice on my back when I got home, I was in and out in a few minutes. (It is a patient-friendly business model—monthly fee, unlimited visits, no appointments, no insurance, no up-sell. I hope it continues to work for him. It certainly does for us. But that’s not what this post is about.)

Later, at home, as I gather my lumbar support cushion and my ice pack, I pick up a book from the night stand. Soul Gardening (subtitled Cultivating the Good Life, by Terry Hershey) is one of several currently at my bedside, to be sampled and savored a few bites at a time while winding down at the end of the day. The book mark is at the beginning of the section, “Winter.” Winter soul gardening, it seems, is about Sabbath. Just as we need, and are lovingly commanded to take, regular rest, our gardens too need that seasonal rest. They may be unproductive—even ugly—in winter, but in that mess lie the seeds of rebirth that spring will bring forth. My back, it seems, needs Sabbath. 

The temperature is in the nineties, yet my deck is shaded after midday and there is a slight breeze. I sit, read, watch the mountains and our meadow, nap. Lately, I have been doing my morning journaling out here. Soul gardening. 

The View from Our Deck

We have come through an extended time in which we were driven by agendas that left little time for rest. Selling parental houses, remodeling and moving into this one, getting through the wedding of our youngest. We have recently reached a point where we talk of the luxury of choice. Yes, we have a list of projects in and around our new home that will take years, at least. Yes, we have other obligations—including church and musical organizations. But, as we tried to explain to our son and daughter-in-law when they worried that we were working too hard, much of what is on our To-Do lists is play. Others golf or fish or travel. We play in yard and shop and studio. These days, when we wake in the morning and consider how to spend the day, we are making happy choices from a large and luscious menu.

I am reminded of those discussions in the business literature of my mid-career days, warning of the trap of urgency. All of us fall into that trap, spending our time and energy on tasks that are presented as urgent, to the detriment of those that in our hearts we know to be more important. Perhaps it is the wisdom of age; perhaps the luxury of retirement; possibly just that, at my age, society no longer views me fit for the urgent tasks. Whatever the reason, my life is less driven by urgency and more by importance, than at any time in my past. 

So I am not much put out by the forced leisure. That trench will get done, or not. Maybe my son will do it. With care, my back will recover in a day or so, and I will—carefully— resume my digging and hauling and mulching. With a healthy dose of reading and writing and watching for hawks from my deck chair.