All posts by sigmon-carow

Endarkenment

The funniest story I have heard about covid-19 hoarding came from my son in Oregon. He was at a gasoline station when someone pulled up in a homemade go-cart and asked for one-half gallon of gas. Any more would have just leaked out through the rust holes higher in the tank.

I don’t know about you, but I find myself whipsawed in my reactions to the pandemic. So far for me, it has been more like a vacation than a hardship. My vacation started back in that distant time (three weeks ago) when covid-19 was mostly a problem for other places. I had minor surgery and was forced to be inactive for several days. So I read. Books. A lot of them. Some new, others pulled from my bookshelf to be enjoyed for a second or third time. My recovery coincided with the local onset of social distancing. Normally at this time of year, I would be juggling gardening and other projects between my home and church, and spending lots of time on the two bands that we belong to. With the bands shut down and normal church activities curtailed, I just stay home. Work outside or in the shop for awhile, practice the sonata I am trying to learn, then settle in my recliner for more reading. A vacation.

Sure, there have been minor quandaries. Is it okay to make a quick stop at Home Depot on my way home from physical therapy? Should I quit physical therapy? (They are shutting down, so my last two appointments will be remote.) When the contractor I have been trying to get for a month finally says he can look at the job, do I turn him away?

I will admit to one or two moments of panic when reading about what could happen and imagining myself as one of those who needs a ventilator when none are available. In truth, however, I have barely been inconvenienced.

One can find—in the media, in the commentariat, among acquaintances—views on where we are heading that range from Pollyanna to Armageddon, from fears of social breakdown to signs of empathy and solidarity with the afflicted, from the fatalistic “I will die” to jokes about hoarding toilet paper when the symptoms are respiratory. 

Nancy and I were having a “best of times, worst of times” discussion recently. Relative to most of humanity, past and present, we were born into place, time, and circumstances of prosperity, safety, freedom, and privilege. Furthermore, my worldview held that, over time, these blessings of prosperity, safety, freedom, and privilege would spread to larger segments of humanity. Observing 1) the accelerating pace of fallout from climate change, 2) worldwide political tendencies toward the nastier forms of nationalism and tribalism, and 3) our revealed vulnerabilities to this pandemic, that worldview and our blessings seem increasingly fragile.

As a former spiritual director regularly asked me, where is God in this? I reject the simplistic and naive answers to that question: That God is absent or non-existent; that God is vindictively punishing us for some infraction; that God is testing our faith, and we need not take the precautions, such as hand washing and social distancing, prescribed  by mammon (updated versions of snake handling and the prosperity gospel). I do not believe God has willed this disease on anyone, but I do believe it has something to teach me.

Exactly what, I do not yet know. But I see some hints in the recent daily meditations of Richard Rohr. I won’t try to summarize, because I am still digesting. If you are interested, I suggest going directly to those meditations, March 21 through the present. Contemplate what the psalms of lamentation (March 21) have to tell us. Explore Barbara Brown Taylor’s word, “endarkenment” (March 26). (That one has prompted me to re-read her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark.) 

It is, amid many rainy days and a frightening pandemic, an intensely lovely spring. I am trying to pay attention to both.

Getting Lost

I had personal business in Augusta, Georgia, recently. The plan was to drive down Sunday after church in Nancy’s van, leaving her my truck with questionable tires and brakes. I got a late start by deciding to go home after church and change into more comfortable travel clothes. Then, when I stopped at Sonic for a quick lunch, the van would not re-start. Nancy was nearby in the truck, but my attempt to jump one vehicle from the other failed. It took an hour for AAA to arrive before I could finally get underway. 

I had another delay at the North Carolina state line—DOT had left a bunch of orange cones in one lane of I-40 and the merge process took three-quarters of an hour. (I later caught the tail end of a news story claiming that they are reinforcing the concrete barrier between the east-bound and west-bound lanes, but no construction equipment was present when I passed by.) 

I ran out of daylight around Hendersonville. Felt, but did not see the descent into the Green River Gorge. Caught the merest glimpse of lights dotting the South Carolina Piedmont as I-26 dropped off the Blue Ridge escarpment, and was still two-and-a-half hours from my destination.

Apparently, I am out of practice with this travel business. Planned the route before leaving home? No. Checked for traffic delays? No. Packed toothpaste? No. 

Once in South Carolina, I needed route guidance. The simple stay-on-the-Interstates route is indirect. Think of a triangle. You want to get from point A to point C, but the Interstate route takes you first through point B. The “direct” route from A to C is anything but—a zig-zag of two-lane state roads through small towns, a route not in my memory bank. I did not have a paper map, and my phone’s battery was depleting fast. 

Oops! Nancy had had trouble with trying to charge her phone from a USB port in her van, so she’d bought an external backup. My phone is the same model. I had not brought her external battery. No problem, I can charge the phone from my computer. Oops! I had not packed the dongle that links the Thunderbolt port on my computer to a USB phone charging cable. And where had I made reservations for the night? For some reason, that email confirmation was not showing up in my Mail app.

As it turns out, my phone did accept power from the van’s USB. When the time came make the route choice, I took the leap into the lesser-known two-lane zig-zag. These roads were nearly deserted. Was this wise?

In retrospect, it turned out to be an OK trip. Lots of annoyances, no big disasters. But it left me wondering, should I 1) travel more, 2) travel less, or 3) always take my wife with me? Right now, option 1 seems the least appealing.

I am reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World. And my not-well-planned and somewhat impromptu trip reminds me of her admonishment to embrace the “practice of getting lost.” When we allow ourselves to step off the familiar path, to venture out of familiar territory, to risk the unknown, we are more likely to encounter the holy. Not that those unfamiliar places are the only places where holy resides, but they are the places where our guards are down, and we see what the routines of our lives so often filter out.  They are the places where we are the stranger, the vulnerable, where our illusions of control are exposed.

Shortly before Christmas, on a trip to the art store, Nancy discovered the Dream Board, a pale blank medium on which you “paint” with clear water. The brush stroke leaves a black mark that disappears in a few minutes as the water evaporates. Lately, I have incorporated the Dream Board into my morning contemplative routine. I make a squiggle on the board, sit back, and study it. Surprisingly often, the squiggle brings to mind an image that was not in my conscious intent. Mountains on the horizon. A running horse, tail streaming behind. A curled fetus. Other times, I set out to evoke an image in a few brush strokes. A sailboat. A bird in flight. A tree. These efforts are hindered by my lack of skill and the annoying tremor in my dominant hand. But even the ugly failures are interesting to observe. Disappearing images often morph into something else entirely. 

It seems to me that my Dream Board experiences, and contemplative practice in general, are akin to Taylor’s “getting lost.” They take me out of my planned and scripted life, out of my ruts, out of my ego; they open me to the holy that I would otherwise not see. 

I was never really lost on my recent trip. And I had no dramatic “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it!” experiences. I did, in my daylight return trip through the heart of South Carolina’s peach country, see mile after mile of peach orchard, trees already red-tipped in early January. And the magnificent Blue Ridge escarpment looming ahead. Not a bad way to start the new year. 

So, maybe more travel, not less. With Nancy. We’ve been thinking about revisiting The Jerusalem Grill in Rome, Georgia—just a three-hour drive to the best shawarma we’ve experienced, with not a mile of Interstate. Or maybe Nashville, to try out full-sized vibraphones on a showroom floor—lots of waterfalls between here and there, if you stray from the beaten path.

Thoughts on the Feast of Stephen

As I wrote the date in my journal, I appended, Feast of Stephen. That set me thinking about how far removed contemporary culture (myself included) is from the time when saints’ feast days were equated with calendar dates in ordinary vernacular. History and/or Shakespeare buffs will know that the Battle of Agincourt was fought on St. Crispin’s Day. But what time of year is that? The rabble in the Globe Theater knew. 

I am reading a book about the northern border of the U.S., which begins with a history of sixteenth century French exploration of North America. That led me to read up on the preceding forty years of religious wars in France, where I found a reference to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. St. Bartholomew’s Day? When is that? Sixteenth century Frenchmen knew. 

St. Swithun’s Day? Yes, he did exist, and there is a reason for the rhyme tying his feast day with a weather forecast. No, I am not going to tell you. Have your own fun looking it up. I will only divulge that the Feast of Stephen falls on December 26, which is also The Second Day of Christmas.

Of course, we have our own (almost) contemporary saint’s day massacre (St. Valentine’s). But aside from Valentine, and of course, St. Nick, what saint’s days take your mind immediately to a calendar date? St. Stephen is my limit.

Looking out on this Feast of Stephen, I did not see snow, deep and crisp and even. I did see a lake of fog in the valley below. That’s been a feature of the last few days. Below is a series of photos taken on Christmas Eve as day broke—the Cumberland Mountains stark against a clear sky with a lake of fog in the valley below. (Photos begin at 7:25 am and end at 8:29.)

It is too cold this time of year to do my journaling out on the deck, so that series of photos represents jumping up from my writing every few minutes to walk out onto the deck and capture the sight. I claim my journaling as my current contemplative practice. But sometimes I wonder. My entries often seem little more than making “to do” lists and “Dear Diary” reporting, more narcissism than contemplation. The saving grace is that the exercise forces me to pay attention, to be present. 

We bought this place in 2017 and spent the entire fall of that year on the initial round of renovations before moving in; 2018 was a year of trying to settle in and planning how to accomplish the other improvements we thought were needed; and 2019 has been the year of the contractor. Major sweeping changes to two bathrooms, removal of some scary trees overhanging the house and garage, reshaping the drainage around the uphill side of the house, construction of safer and more convenient exterior access to our downstairs. Enough! Our resolution for 2020 is “No more contractors!”

Both the tree removal and the drainage improvements sent Bobcats up and down the old logging road that is our principal access to our meadow. Now that steep pathway is a muddy mess, likely to stay that way well into spring. I am especially anxious to put a deep organic cover over the roots of a huge chestnut oak, to help it recover from the compaction of all the unaccustomed traffic. If it fell, it would likely take with it the whole 200-foot long row of big trees bordering the west edge of the meadow. I have a truckload of leaves at the top, and a similar pile of wood chips at the bottom. But the muddy steep slope is too much for The Goat. So I reverted to more primitive technology—raking the leaves onto an old bedsheet and lugging it on my back like Santa’s toy sack. Later I hope to do the same with the wood chips, although that will be an uphill slog.

2019 ends—and 2020 will begin—with a big push to get our studio, shop, and garage sorted for future creative endeavors. Construction leftovers and an excess of “that might be useful for shelving (or storage or…” have all these spaces overcrowded to the point of gridlock. We have goals:

  • Nancy’s studio table art-ready, not cluttered with sheet music and bins of miscellania to be sorted 
  • My shop cleared of unusable wood scraps, with dreamed-of work stations functioning 
  • The music end of the studio free of intruding leftovers so that we can walk in, pick up mallets, and play.

These last few days of clear skies and warm temperatures have me wanting to play in the woods. There is easily a couple of weeks of tempting tasks calling me out there, and I will heed some of the calls. But cold and wet days will return, and we will continue to tackle the studio and shop. It looks to be a very good year.

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.