All posts by sigmon-carow

Conversion

In a pre-Christmas issue of OnBeing’s newsletter, The Pause, Padraig O’Tuama tells a story from his late teens, a period of his life that he describes as “too interested in religion” and “too much zeal.” Working for a church in Dublin, he encountered an elderly woman in chapel nearly every day for five years. And every time, she would say, “I’m praying for you; for your conversion.”

He goes on to say how his initial dismay (“I was already converted”) evolved over time to a deeper understanding of conversion: “It is an embrace of the possibility of change and future. … It calls us again and again throughout a life.”

He might have said, It calls us to life—to a deeper, richer, more genuine life. 

In some contexts, conversion is seen in binary terms: yes or no, before or after, saved or not saved, sheep or goat. St. Paul is the prototypical example, to the extent that “Damascus Road experience” is a familiar idiom, even in the secular world.

In others, the pattern is more like that of St. Peter, conversion on conversion on conversion. Even after his uncomfortable post-Resurrection “little chat” over breakfast (“do you love me … feed my sheep”), even after Pentecost, we have the story of his dream on the rooftop in Joppa.

I have been blessed with many conversions over the course of my life. But I say “blessed” only after the fact. Conversion, in my experience, is not a pleasant thing to go through. Most of the time, when we say we are praying for someone, we pray for favorable external circumstances: May you get well, may you get the job, may you win the lottery, may your pain go away. To pray for another’s conversion is to wish pain onto them. Granted, a necessary pain that will lead to that deeper, richer, more genuine life, but pain, nevertheless. 

What a startling, presumptuous prayer! And one fraught with pitfalls for the pray-er. If I pray for your conversion, am I ignoring my own need to change? (E.G., May all you folks who voted the “wrong” way in the recent election come to see the light.) If I pray for your conversion, am I assuming that I know what you are in need of? I have repeatedly made the mistake of thinking I knew the particular way my spouse or child needed to change. And yet, more than one of my own conversions came at a wise and loving challenge from Nancy.

_________

On another front, signs of spring are all around. Shoots of the spring ephemerals are popping up through the leaf litter. The woods are full of birdsong. Nancy spotted a pair of red-shouldered hawks in the big pine tree below us.

As usual, the list of tasks we were going to accomplish over the winter is barely diminished. We did spend two afternoons crawling around under some rhododendron, pulling out the English ivy—a task I am only willing to do when it is too cold for the snakes and other critters to be active. In our observation, the ivy does not climb and cling onto the rhododendron and azaleas. And under the rhodies, the ivy was far less thick than just outside their reach. Too shady? Or does that genus somehow suppress ivy?

_________

A final aside: Here is a clip entitled “Mona Plays Basketball.”

Thanksgiving

I have been privileged on these cold and cloudless mid-November mornings to watch the daily purpling of the Cumberlands. My days begin when my dog pops her head over the side of my bed at daybreak, signaling “You are wasting daylight, and I have to pee.” To the north, the Cumberland escarpment is a uniform wall of deep blue, beneath a pale blue sky. By the end of our walk, however, the rising sun shines a red-tinted spotlight on the mountains’ face, and soon their ridged and folded topography is revealed, as the high places turn purple while the hollows remain deep blue.

For much of the year, only the mountain tops are visible to us, with the lower slopes hidden by the row of still growing tulip poplars that will someday cover the entire view. For now, their bare trunks and branches are almost black random mullions in our temporary window onto the full mass of these mountains—easy to look through and forget their presence.

If the wind direction is into the sunrise, the windmill tri-stars on Buffalo Mountain shine a brilliant white. On other days when they are turned oblique to the sun, they are hardly noticeable. Meanwhile, the ever higher sun lights up the nearer trees in the valley a yellow brown.

Now comes coffee. After trying several methods, we have settled on a slow pour-over. The ritual has become another nod toward mindfulness (and adding the used grounds to the compost bin is easier with this method than the messy disassembling of K-cups).

Settling into my easy chair with my coffee, I must choose: Will I start my day on a contemplative note, with my journal and/or a dose of Richard Rohr or Mary Oliver? Or will I succumb first to the blood-pressure raising siren call of the morning paper and news feed?

In any case, my time in the easy chair is limited. Mona needs to play, which she typically announces by dropping a tennis ball into my lap. Once, and only once, I snapped, “Go play with yourself!” and, as if I’d thrown a switch, she spun into her tail-chasing dervish mode. Mostly, though, she will charm me or wear me down until I get up and pay attention to her. 

Over the course of a day, we will have two or three sessions of chase-the-ball-down-the-hall; a couple of trips outdoors to harass chipmunks or race around with a nearly flat basketball that she scavenged from the woods gripped in her teeth; not to mention the four walks on a leash, poop bag in hand. The latter, pursued vigorously up our very steep street, double as my aerobic interval training. Our previous dog called me to Sabbath; this one calls me to action.

Our long-term project to replace the invasives on our property with wildlife-friendly native plants is slowly showing progress.  Our rogues’ gallery of undesirables has become a Ten Least Wanted: English ivy, Japanese stiltgrass, ground ivy, Italian arum, mulberryweed, Oriental bittersweet, privet, mahonia, Rose of Sharon, and poison ivy. The work of many of our days consists of removing one or more of these pests from some small definable patch of ground. 

Arum is Nancy’s current villain #1. Impervious to herbicides, it reproduces by means of tiny underground corms. Dig a plant up and it leaves many corms behind. Her current strategy is to do “Mohs surgery” around the mother plants, digging outward and down until all the visible plant is removed. Then wait a few weeks for the corms that were left behind to emerge and do it again. And again. And again. Her hope is that by preventing the emerging young plants from producing new corms, eventually the soil’s inventory will be depleted. It is grinding work. For each young plant that is visible, she will find a dozen underground. Fortunately, this is cool weather work and their bright green leaves are readily visible against the seasonal brown.

How to do this on the greater-than-45-degree slopes below our driveway? We use a climbing rope anchored to my truck, with a prussic knot allowing the harnessed digger to hold a position on the rope and work with both hands.

Some days, it seems we only tear down. Yet the work also includes building up after the tearing down. In woodland patches cleared of English ivy, long-suppressed native forbs are coming back, and the wood asters we planted are propagating. A strip of our stilt grass meadow, weeds smothered under a silage tarp for a year, was recently planted with a native wildflower mix. An American holly, rescued from a choking, cloaking tangle of Oriental bittersweet, displays its glossy foliage once again. We added The Hazels—a pair each of hazelnut, hazel alder, and witch hazel—to define the northern border of the meadow.

Woolly Aphids on Hazel Alder

Our hazel alders have white fuzzies. Tennessee Naturescapes tells me that is good news. These are woolly aphids, food of the caterpillar phase of the Harvester butterfly—the only carnivorous butterfly larvae in the western hemisphere. You can read here how these meat-eating larvae manage to co-exist with the aphids and the ants who “guard” them.

Mary Oliver wrote*:

“I would like to write a poem about the world that has in it nothing fancy. But it seems impossible.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

(*From “This World,” in her collection, Why I Wake Early.)

Blue and Other Delights

I am sitting on our deck in the middle of a perfect September day. The sky, and the Cumberland Mountains, are an astonishing blue. I recently had cataract surgery, and my renewed acquaintance with the color blue is a constant delight. I opted for the multi-focal lens implants, so am without glasses for the first time since second grade. But the color intensity is still the most noticeable change. It as if I’ve swapped all the 3000K LED bulbs for 4000K ones.

My vision had become uncorrectable with glasses, one eye much near-sighted, the other extreme in the other direction. It had become so bad that, when driving at night, by the time I was close enough to read a roadside sign, it was no longer illuminated by my headlights. Now, I am watching a hawk sail overhead, a mile or so out over the valley, then back again.

Another recent delight is our new dog. It has been almost a year-and-a-half since the last one died. Nancy has been chipping away at my reluctance for a while, noting that our grand-dogs don’t visit often enough to satisfy her need for a dog fix. She has been haunting the websites of dog shelters, and Jay has fueled the fire with his own web searches. Our new addition looks amazingly like our former one, who, in turn, looked like Nancy’s first dog. So, Mona iii has entered our lives. A rescue, about a year and a half old, seems to be a mix of border collie and lab. And way too much energy for a couple of geezers-in-training. But she is attentive, wants to please, and is a quick learner.

The third major event of our recent lives is the publishing of the first virtual performance of the Oak Ridge Community Band. How does a band keep playing while shut down for a pandemic? Earlier this summer, several small ensembles made recordings while spread out on our deck. Most recently, nearly forty musicians made video and audio recordings of themselves playing in isolation while listening through headphones to a click-track. The piece, “The Distance Between Us,” was composed by the band’s director, Shaun Salem, and honors all who suffer through this pandemic, by isolation and other losses. Nancy has spent the last couple of weeks in a frenzy of effort to merge all the videos and overlay them onto the merged audio track. You can see this virtual performance, and the small ensembles at the ORCB Facebook page.

The Summer of Covid

It has been a long while since I wrote a piece for “The Frog Blog.” As Douglas Adams said of his Hitchhiker’s Guide Trilogy (on publishing the fifth book in the series), the Frog Blog is becoming increasingly ill-named. We are approaching three years at this place and have still not constructed a frog pond, despite Nancy’s fervent wishes.

Two problems keep getting in the way of that long-desired pond. First, our steep terrain and the layout of our house frustrate our search for the best location. So far, we have had more than a half dozen candidates and at least three front-runners. Second, and perhaps most important, life keeps happening. This summer, for instance, when we should be taking a break from our war on Japanese stilt grass and English ivy to build a pond, the stilt grass and ivy grow merrily while we are instead frantically trying undo the damage of having to replace our wastewater plumbing. 

The plumbing job is done. But there is a wall to be built in our downstairs laundry/kitchenette to hide the new piping, and flooring to be laid over the patched up four by six hole where the above-slab and below-slab pipes connect. And mud to be cleaned from the ceiling. (When the directional boring head broke through, the operator still had his lubricant water pumping.)

The outdoors part of the plumbing job left us with two large holes only partly refilled and excess dirt scattered over the 35 degree slope behind the house and the roadway below, which rain and heavy equipment left nearly impassable. So I have been moving East Tennessee clay and mulching with the wood chips our tree guy graciously delivered.

Morning

But the Frog Blog was always about more than frogs. It is broadly an irregular and unscientific chronicle of various nature observations. Despite everything, I am blessed to spend time each day (weather-permitting) on our deck—coffee, binoculars, journal, and perhaps a book at hand. The changeable sky is a constant fascination.

Sunset

In the past year, our neighbor to the north stripped a couple of acres of kudzu wasteland and built on it. More significantly for the local wildlife, about two hundred yards to our west, another landowner stripped 10 acres of fine forest. We have wondered how much this habitat loss will affect our neighborhood’s wildlife.

Morning Again

The verdict is not yet in. We are seeing fewer sightings of “our” red-shouldered hawk and “our” barred owl. Not zero, but fewer. Is that because of the habitat loss? Or is it an artifact of our changed habits? Since Mona died, we don’t make those dog walks through the neighborhood several times a day. We are still outside a lot, but our range has diminished. And now with Covid restrictions, we make fewer trips to town, particularly at night, which was the time we would usually see the owl. We have heard it, and an answering call, so we hope it found love and is still in the neighborhood.

This is very unscientific, but I think I see less activity by songbirds and squirrels and chipmunks during my sessions on the deck than I did last year. I am usually out there early in the morning and typically see little besides a hummingbird at our feeder. About a week ago, my schedule got reversed and my time on the deck came late morning. Immediately my eye was caught by five squirrels playing in Treebeard.* So I wondered if our squirrels were sleeping in on their summer mornings. But another late morning session a few days later yielded no squirrel sightings.

*Have I told you about Treebeard? Remember the walking talking trees in Lord of the Rings? Here is an early spring photo of the black oak not far from our deck.

Treebeard

We still have our blacksnakes. We saw a large one from the deck. I guessed seven or eight feet long, but Nancy says only six. Then a few days later, a three-footer was crossing our driveway. Two days ago, I saw that the large one had shed a skin. Nancy was right (what’s new?)—six feet.

Later in the day, when we are inside, we get frequent sightings of goldfinches drinking from the ant barrier in the hummingbird feeder. And deer have found the ninebark and swamp azalea we recently planted. So there is still lots of life going on, if I take the time to be observant.

As I was pondering how to wrap up this post, Nancy and I each had separate experiences that left us deeply touched and warm toward our fellow man. So I’ll expand the Frog Blog purview to include human nature as well. 

My story: I am a fan of Ann Patchett and especially her novel, Bel Canto. I knew it had been made into an opera, but somehow missed that it had also finally been made into a film, until running across it while browsing Amazon Prime Videos. So we rented it and watched. Pretty good film, but mostly left me hungering to read the book again. So I devoured it over the next two days. Devoured, yet savored. This third reading reminded me that really good literature strikes me more deeply each time I re-read it. Not only Patchett, I have had such experiences with Richard Marius, Barbara Kingsolver, Isabel Allende and others. And I realize that this love is much the same as an opera lover must feel on hearing a great opera. As one of the characters in the book says, “Some people are born to make great art and others are born to appreciate it.” I found deep joy on re-reading Bel Canto. 

Nancy’s story: I was in Kroger, not a common experience these days, as we mostly order and pick up at the curb, but feeling optimistic since Kroger had announced a mask mandate. I needed only a few items, so headed off to the produce section. I became increasingly annoyed at the number of non-compliant shoppers. Biting my tongue, I patiently waited for them to move on before passing. I complained at customer service — pointing out a Kroger employee sans mask — asking if they were making any efforts towards compliance. She told me that she was prohibited from asking customers to put on a mask. As I was leaving the store, I saw three men coming through the entrance. I saw them hesitate just inside the store then turn around and leave. OMG! These men were leaving because they didn’t have masks on! Who were these unmasked men? I was touched that they would inconvenience themselves, when so many others seem selfish and uncaring. When I got back to the car I looked on the console and saw that I had another mask! I saw the men walking toward their vehicle and sped off in their direction. I rolled down the window and told them how grateful I was that they decided to do the right thing and not enter the store without a mask. Then I extended the mask toward them offering that at least one of them could wear it to make their purchases. Their faces lit up. They were so thankful to have the mask they offered to pay me for it. My faith in humanity is restored. Thank you Angels! I have no idea why there was a spare, unworn mask in my van.

Colorful skies, creatures great and small, great art, the good side of humanity. May you find blessings in your Covid summer.

Black Lives Matter

Someone mentioned recently that it had been a long time since my last post.

I have tried. I tried to write about the paths we have been making in our woods. Paths to get us past the unwelcoming poison ivy and English ivy and into the woods more intimately (plus providing edges from which to tackle those unwelcome ivies). Alternative paths in order to give a rest to our one road down into the meadow, a rest to the roots of that magnificent chestnut oak over which the old logging road runs.

I thought to write about our New Year’s resolution, “No Contractors in 2020,” and how it had to give way to the need to replace our corroded cast iron waste plumbing with new PVC (requiring boring underneath the basement slab and cutting a large hole in the laundry room floor), plus the need to install a radon removal system. 

I thought to write about how the Covid-19 isolation has given us time for projects at home, but also allowed the weeds to take over the church gardens we used to tend. Or perhaps about how much more relaxed I find my music practice sessions, now that I do not have to face my teacher each week. Or about the books I am pulling off my shelves for a second or third or fourth reading.

But the unrelenting news of yet more police killings of non-whites, in particular the gruesomeness of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, makes the above topics seem silly and inconsequential.

Where and to what am I called in the face of overwhelming evidence that our society contains deeply engrained racism? Where and to what am I called as I begin to acknowledge at this late stage of my life how I have benefitted from this racism? As I listen to black parents’ talking about the cautions they give to their sons when they go out at night, cautions I never had to give to my own sons? As I listen to tales of being pulled over and harassed for Driving While Black, tales not just from distant anonymous strangers, but from people I know?

It has to start inside me—reflecting deeply on what “white privilege” has given me and listening deeply to the stories of those excluded. It has to start with my paying attention each time my internal dialog makes a distinction between an “us” and a “they,” whether that distinction is based on skin color, wealth, education, or politics.

Typically, when I write these posts, I start with an idea, then struggle to find the ending. But the ending usually comes; some resolution ties the original starting point into a satisfactory literary unit. This particular post has languished for weeks, and I have found no satisfactory way of wrapping it up. Perhaps that is the point after all. A beginning. Unfinished work. 

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.