Category Archives: The View

Meandering

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

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

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

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

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

Carillon Tower, Bok Tower Gardens

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

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

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

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

Providence Canyon

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

Samba dancers in Millenium Park

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

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

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

Labels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me take this idea of labels in another direction.

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

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

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

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

Soul Gardening

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

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

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

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

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

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

The View from Our Deck

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

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

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

Oops!

Tech:  “Did you pull the thermostat off the wall?”

We are outside with the HVAC technician. He has just forced our heating unit to come on (that’s a relief, it’s not dead) and is trying to determine why it was not working.

Me:  “No.” Pause. “That’s an interesting question. Do people do that often?”

Tech:  “You’d be surprised at some of the things we find.”

We have had a spell of unusually warm February weather. However, last night, it turned somewhat cooler, and the house felt cold this morning. A glance at the thermostat showed … nothing. No breakers are tripped, but the thermostat screen is blank.

The technician digs around for a while, then comes into the house to show us a section of the thermostat cable that has been chewed by some critter—a mouse, squirrel, or chipmunk most likely. The wounds were old, the bare wire corroded, and replacing that section has not fixed our problem. He thinks the wire-chewing varmints have been at work farther in than he has been able to go. He will have to come back tomorrow with a partner to help pull cable.

____________

After a chilly night and morning, our technician and his buddy are back. Nancy and I go about our chores as the two traipse in and out, with many trips to their trucks (yep, two technicians, two trucks). This sure is taking awhile.

We are out in the garage when they track us down with an update.

“Your electrician cut the wire. We found one end, but we don’t know where it went from there.”

“Cut the wire? How could they have done that!” Nancy explodes.

It hits me in a rush. “No, they didn’t. You did,” I answer.

Okay. That was unfair. I told her to do it.

____________

A little background.

One of the unsightly features of our new house was wire—yards and yards and yards of wire. Telephone wire and TV coax tacked around the exterior and poked through the walls into each room. The house was built in the ‘60s, and decades of added technologies were evident in wire under eaves, wire up and down walls, wire protruding from baseboards. The service boxes had multiple inputs and outputs. It reminded Nancy of the 1920s scene from Disney’s Carousel of Progress. We have given up landlines and cable TV, so we have been pulling down these wires with abandon. Indoors, too. Our remodeling turned up wires from defunct doorbells and security systems. Cut ‘em out!

Last week, we finally got around to fixing up the musty closet underneath the stairs. Painted, hung shelves. There was a wire running along the intersection of wall and ceiling. Nancy asked me if it was needed. Clearly it was not a power cable. “Cut it,” I said. She did. And did such a neat job of patching the hole in the ceiling that the HVAC techs could not see where the other end of that cable went. The critters that chewed on our thermostat cable were of the species Homo sapiens. They took a six foot long bite right out of that cable.

____________

That was a costly six feet of cable. The only consolation I can see is that we are now among the infamous stories the HVAC techs can tell. I can just imagine a future conversation:

Tech:  “Did you cut a section out of the thermostat wire?”

Homeowner:  “No. Do people do that often?”

Tech:  “You’d be surprised at some of the things we find.”

Lost Memory and Removable Tape

“It lost its memory.”

I had an early morning appointment at the dealership as the front passenger window in Nancy’s van was misbehaving. Settling in with passable coffee, I had written my morning pages and was working on the design of a miter saw station for my new shop when the service tech approached with the news. Nancy’s window had “lost its memory.”

“It happens to us all sooner or later,” I replied, getting a slightly less business-like smile in return.

My mind reeled off in several directions: How does one test a window for memory loss? (“What year is this?” “Who is president?” “What is the date of your birth?”) My diagnostic skills are still stuck in the era when I could set the timing on my 1969 Fiat Spyder with a screwdriver and a continuity tester. And How does the computing power of a 2016 Odyssey compare with that of Alan Shepard’s Mercury capsule?

In stark contrast with my own memory, that of Nancy’s window can be “refreshed.” In less than an hour, we (the car and me) were off, happily under warranty.

Last week, we finally got all our possessions out of Old House, after managing to stretch the process out for four months. As the deadline approached, and I grew increasingly concerned that it would never end, I was tempted to run up the street and warn all the neighbors, “Run! Run from all your possessions while you still can!” Just when we would think we were making headway, we would open another closet and find half a pickup load of sleeping bags, tents, and other camping stuff that our son assures us he wants and will use. Or we’d pull out of the attic several boxes of bank statements and other detritus of a business we closed almost two decades ago.

We have had several luxuries with this move. We moved just two miles. We had time to be deliberate. And we were not forced by downsizing into unloading a lot of things we were not yet ready to part with. An uncle had the opposite experience. They had decided to give up their mini-farm and move into a condo, in another state. The farm sold instantly and they had just 30 days to vacate, without a place to move to. He still wishes he’d held onto more of his tools.

Installing the handles and knobs on our new cabinet doors and drawers was an adventure. If you go into your local hardware or big box store, you will find handles whose screw spacing is a standard 3 or 4 inches. Somehow, we ended up with “none of the above.” I was struggling to measure the spacing in preparation for making a template, and finding nothing that made sense in either inches or millimeters. Fortunately, I married a practical artist. Nancy’s solution was to forego the tape measure and directly copy the hole pattern. She transferred the pattern to a piece of removable tape, rubbing the back of the handle with a graphite stick, then pressing the tape onto the back. When pulled away, the tape held the graphite, clearly showing a full scale image of the back of the handle. Then the tape was placed onto the wooden template form, and the holes drilled with the drill press.

That’s not the first time I have had to abandon my “measure and math” approach for Nancy’s “copy the pattern.” Nor the first time removable tape has come to the rescue. My father used to say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” It’s a colloquialism whose origins I do not care to know, but I understand the point.

A Longer View

“If we ever move,” Nancy had declared, “let’s get a  level lot, so we can watch sunset every night.”

Boy, did we fail that one!

Or did we? There is a level bench for the driveway, which follows the topographic contour. And a subterranean one for the basement slab. All of which only slightly negate the elevation drop of 70 feet in 300 from the high to low points of our lot. Gardening and landscaping will be a challenge.

On the other hand, if and when the time comes, we can live on the main floor, descend two shallow steps, and walk to the mailbox along that level driveway. Not many homes in our part of the world offer that kind of level.

As to the view, it is true that thick forest lies to our west. But we have seen some spectacular sunsets filtered through that forest, more than we ever saw from our old house.

When we named this blog, The View from Blackoak Ridge, we described the “view” as “in part, a visual look at our physical surroundings” (but) “also an intellectual, spiritual, emotional view from where we are at this stage of our lives.” Being hemmed in by suburbia, the “visual” views were decidedly short range, and the visual descriptions tended toward the microscopic. (See the category, Frog Blog.)

We have moved just two miles. We are still on the same ridge, but on the back side, on the edge of city/suburbia. Some previous owner had removed trees downslope, opening up a meadow below and a “Wow!”-eliciting view of the Cumberland Mountains in the distance. Our physical view has expanded. We not only see sunsets filtered through the forest, but, I expect, in the months and years ahead will see the play of sunrise, sunset, and moving clouds on those distant mountains.

My “intellectual, spiritual, emotional” views are also tending toward the macroscopic. We have been through major changes with our parents, and I see and feel the weight of time on my own body. I am—we are—more intentional in our choices of how to spend our time; more fully into “the age of active wisdom” than when this blog began.

We are moving to the new house in the final days of 2017. It is Christmas as I write, and will still be Christmas liturgically when we move. All New Years bring new adventures; this one is pregnant with possibilities. The “bleak midwinter” gives way to new beginnings. Happy New Year! And may all your Christmases be bright.

Old Dogs, New Tricks

“Have you moved yet?”

It’s a common question, and a reasonable one. I wish it had a straightforward answer. My life would be so much simpler.

Yes, we have moved. We have moved all the clutter from the old house. Old House is ready for realtor showing. It looks as if you could move your stuff in and have plenty of room. It does not look lived in, unless your version of “lived in” means that everything is put away each morning, the beds are made, and the Better Homes and Gardens photographer could show up without notice.

No, we have not moved. Our in-season clothing, our food, our dishes, much of our furniture are still at Old House. We sometimes camp out at New House. But mostly, we sleep at Old House. Nancy calls it “going back to the hotel”—neat and clean, but lacking the comforts of home.

New House is currently not-quite-habitable. The kitchen has been gutted and the ceiling in the kitchen and family room is being raised to the roof line. We found mold, so had a delay for remediation. We are adding a kitchenette downstairs in the laundry room. That room has been an adventure, with unpleasant surprises revealed each time a wall is opened.

We are also building a “Narnia closet.” (We already have the lamppost.) By co-opting part of the carport closet, we will have an insulated and finished storage space behind the foyer coat closet. Push the coats aside (a la the wardrobe entry into Narnia) to enter this domicile of the seldom-used but moisture-sensitive.

All of which is to say that our lives are in more than the usual amount of turmoil. Where did I put my travel toiletries? My study book for Men’s Group? (It was missing for three weeks, showed up for a week, then was lost again.) What do I need to pack for an overnighter at New House? The musical instruments are at New House (except when they are not, see below), and the tools are migrating that way one toolbox at a time.

Our poor dog is having a time adjusting to this lifestyle. Mona is thirteen years old and has always been somewhat neurotic. She likes the constant stream of workmen who come to New House to pet her. She likes the larger grounds on which to romp and mark and patrol for chipmunks. But the changes are also stressful, and her anxiety levels are up. Plus, she is losing her hearing. Sometimes she loses track of where we are and wanders randomly in search. I call out, but she doesn’t hear. (The deaf calling the deaf.) On a recent day, I was trying to get her into my truck for the trip back to Old House, and she got distracted by the meter reader, followed him for a while, then wandered into a neighbor’s yard, looking lost. I called and called, but finally just waited for her to turn in my direction so I could summon her with hand signals. Sometimes I wonder if she is losing more than her hearing.

Can that old dog learn new tricks? Can I? Nancy recently convinced me to swell the percussion section of one of her bands. I have a little experience with singing but none as an instrumentalist. Our conductor and my fellow percussionists are kind—like indulgent parents, with lavish praise when I get something right and tolerant smiles when I don’t. I’m still more useful as a roady than a musician.

The music schedule and logistics are a nightmare. We will one day have an organized music room with a place for everything and everything in its place. And checklists. One day. But not yet. Consider: Nancy is a regular member of two bands and a church ensemble. We’ll call them Band 1, Band 2, and Church. For each, she uses a different combination of major instruments (bells, xylophone, cymbals, base tom), secondary instruments (triangle, tambourine, mark tree, wood blocks, shakers, Claves, jingle bells), plus supporting stands and holders, mallets, and sheet music. Here is the schedule for a recent two weeks:

Day Band 1 Band 2 Church
Tuesday practice
Wednesday practice
Thursday practice
Saturday performance
Sunday performance performance
Tuesday practice
Wednesday practice
Thursday practice
Saturday
Sunday performance performance
Tuesday practice

That second Band 2 performance also required an “anvil,” a 25-pound chunk of steel with its own support table and a pair of hammers. All this equipment is in constant flux among the venues, Nancy’s car, and the music-room-to-be at New House, where it shares space with the furnishings and materials of the art-studio-to-be and other stuff. Is it any wonder that we showed up at Band 1 practice one night missing the cymbals and her primary set of mallets?

“Have you moved yet?” I once thought we’d be in by Thanksgiving. Now I am hoping for Christmas. Our sanity is wearing thin. Bah! Humbug!

The Things We Moved

The world’s greatest grandkids came to visit during the eclipse. Ages 1 and 3 and 5. Oh, yes, their parents came too. We all had a grand time, before, during, and after the celestial event.

The oldest’s interests are largely mechanical. He goes into long monologs about “long-reach excavators” and “pipe layers” and “ductile iron pipe” and “storage silos.” The middle one is a budding ballerina, thrilled with the tutus that Grandnan made for her. The youngest watches his siblings with adoration and charms adults with his smiles.

We have just closed on our new house and are in the middle of getting our old one ready to show. Everything must be just so in order to look attractive to potential buyers. So the brick and gravel roads our oldest grandson constructed during the eclipse weekend have to go.

We do sympathize with his interests. Nancy mourns having to leave the pond and its frogs behind. But, we can take some of the rocks and seashells that accent her gardens. There are rocks she has named: the sail, the Easter Islanders (more than one). There is her New England rock, a smooth beautifully-banded soft-ball-sized stone she picked up as a child. There are stepping stones from East Tennessee strata, displaying crinoids and other fossils, seashells from the tip of Pass-a-Grille, Florida, and exquisite corals from a beach in Taiwan.

Collecting rocks and shells is an interest we share. Together we have gathered multi-colored pebbles from a particular spot on Watts Bar Lake, grain-of-rice sized shells from a beach on Kawaii, massive eroded and fossil-encrusted stones uncovered by the grading for a new development (with permission), and endlessly variable chunks from our own woods.

Frog on Milky Quartz

My mother had outlined one of her flower beds with stones from a mica mine that had been operated on her family farm during WWII. Mostly milky quartz (at least that’s what I think it is), but there was one coconut-sized piece of quartz so clear that it had bright green moss growing underneath. Years ago, I told Nancy there was not much I coveted from my parents’ house, but I wanted that piece of clear quartz when the time came. I have it now, plus a smaller one, and some large examples of the milky variety. They will travel with us to the new house. And the red mystery rock I picked up near an Idaho ghost town.

Pond Flanked by Large Milky Quartz with Pagodas in Background

We debated about the pagodas. Weathered and moss-covered features of our landscaping, both had been rescued from oblivion years ago. The small one had been Mother’s. The large one was being covered by poison ivy in an unused corner of a lot down the street, whose new owner had been unaware of its existence. We had installed low-voltage lights in both pagodas and made them focal points. Should we leave them to a possibly-unappreciative new owner, or take them with us? We had almost decided to leave them behind, with a request that we be given first chance if the future buyer ever wanted to get rid of them. It was our son’s chagrin at leaving them that tipped the decision. If he was willing to help move the heavy stuff, we were happy to take it.

Mona with Small Pagoda

We have not taken all, by a long shot. The gardens here still look complete, to anyone but us. And we are moving to a place that also has been lovingly care for, whose former owners also had to decide what to take and what to leave, who also left a landscape that is, to an outsider, complete. The transition from grounds that were theirs to grounds that become ours will be gradual.

Large Pagoda Behind Iris

What to keep, what to throw away? Recurring dilemmas that we have debated, joked about, occasionally had fights about. For Nancy and me, reluctance to part with an object is usually less about emotional attachment and more about the likelihood of finding a future use. We are both do-it-yourselfers, so have an innate desire to hang on to odds and ends. It is a balance between usefulness and clutter. Can I even find it when that future use arises? Can I function in the meantime without tripping over it?

Some of what we moved to the new house, you might consider trash. I hauled one pickup truck load of paver bricks and blocks, tag ends of past hardscaping projects. Yes, we frequently find a use for two or three. I saved a small garbage can of two-by-four scraps, for blocking and chocking and propping. Nancy has drawer after drawer of feedstock for collages and craft projects.

A decade or so ago, a couple we know was downsizing. They offered, and we accepted, a box of wood scraps. Small stuff, mostly hardwoods, mostly non-standard sizes. Some had acquired a mildew smell, so the entire lot ended up in the attic to bake out. And stayed there for years. For a constellation of reasons, that wood scrap collection has become the go to source for a number of recent projects.

A band that Nancy plays in recently did a piece called “Instant Concert.” At one point, the score calls for hammering on an anvil, which in this case was a length of I-beam suspended from a cymbal stand. (Percussionists have more fun!) So, when I was moving tools from the old shop to the new one and picked up the section of railroad rail that I use when I have occasional need for an anvil, Nancy said, “You look at that and see a tool; I see a musical instrument.”

Organizing guru, Andrew Mellen, says don’t save things that don’t have a good story. A lot of good stories are traveling to our new house.

Quiet Heroes

A few weeks after Mother died, I got a note from her church with a list of people who had made memorial gifts in her name, so I could write a thank you from the family. One name on the list was a mystery. I asked Mother’s last surviving sister, but she did not know who it was either. We both had seen the name in the return address field of greeting cards Mother had received during her time in the nursing home, but neither of us had inquired further. I wrote the thank you. It was necessarily short and bland, as I was not bold enough to ask, “Who are you?”

The answer, though, came a short time later. The donor sent me a generous letter saying she was happy to have received my note, as it gave her an address for a family member. In response to my unasked question, she explained that she had a brand new degree and teaching certificate when hired by the school where my mother taught. The year was 1950, and my mother was already a veteran of probably half a dozen years. (I believe Mother’s teaching career began in 1942. I know she took a year off to have me, and I believe there were some other interruptions during the war years.)

They were colleagues for just one year before my correspondent had moved on. But she credited Mother as the reason she had survived that first year. Like Mother, she had served a full career as a teacher. She had moved several times to different cities and schools, so had lost touch with Mother for a while. But she had always remembered that year of being mentored and had re-established contact many years ago. Except for that first year, it was a friendship carried out almost entirely by correspondence. It lasted nearly seventy years.

Mother seemed to inspire long-lived friendships, even across barriers of distance or age cohort. I can think of several friendships with younger families, some more than a generation younger. Her neighbors’ four children became like grandchildren to her. When it came time to sell her house, that next-door family bought it, lovingly and beautifully updating its 1950s style to a contemporary twenty-first century look and functionality.

She made connections with other people to the end. Whenever she returned to the hospital, nurses who had cared for her previously would stop by to see how she was doing. Later, as I would walk the halls of her nursing home with her, it seemed nearly every staffer had to stop and give her a hug.

Mother was the gregarious one, and the stories people tell me typically stress kindness. Daddy died ten years ago, but I stilI hear admiring stories about him, in which the lauded traits are service and dependability. When I was young, he worked for a laundry/dry cleaners, managing operations for the often-incapacitated owner. (Pioneering radiation treatments for cancer had left the owner confined to a wheelchair, yet grateful for the decades they had added to his life.) During this period, Daddy also held leadership jobs at church. My childhood memories have him leaving his laundry job at six, coming home for a quick supper, then—several nights a week—rushing off to a seven-thirty church meeting that might last until ten.

Later, he became a self-employed carpet cleaner, working into his seventies until dementia forced his retirement. While we were working out details of Mother’s funeral, the funeral director, who had been a friend and neighbor of Mother’s older brother, told me he would ask Daddy to clean the carpets in his home each year during their family vacation. Daddy knew where the house key was hidden, would let himself in, do the work, and send a bill. One year, he found an envelope with a substantial sum of cash that had slipped behind a dresser and been lost. The funeral director returned from his vacation to find the intact envelope on top of the dresser, with a note from Daddy.

After Mother’s death, I was sharing some of these stories with a counselor, and she used the term, “quiet heroes.” That seems about right.

Quiet heroes. You may know some. You may be one. By their very nature, these quiet heroes may be unaware of the impact they have on others, of the grace they bring into other lives. Nancy’s niece recently recalled a book Nancy had given her many years ago, a book about women who had made a difference. She said she “wore that book out,” reading it again and again, mining it for inspiration. Nancy had not known.

One more story. When our son was born, Nancy’s mother was unavailable, so my mother came to help for a few days. Nancy has repeatedly praised the gift of those days, commenting how Mother quietly kept the household running (meals, laundry, …), not offering advice unless asked, allowing Nancy and Jay the freedom to work out a mother-child pattern that worked for them.

Quiet hero indeed.

The Age of Active Wisdom (or Seventy is the New Fifty)

Why? Why, when I do not feel old (69 is middle-aged, right?), why, then, was our hearing aids the topic of conversation among the guys I cooked breakfast with Sunday morning?

Age and aging has been on my mind. Nancy and I have been house-hunting. Our current house is a special place— light and airy and connected to nature. I have written about Nancy’s gardens and the frog pond just outside our picture window. (See the Tag Cloud in the right hand column of our web page.) As I write, I am watching hummingbirds and goldfinches in a front yard shaded by a magnificent black cherry and a somewhat lesser black gum. Our small patch of suburbia is a riot of late summer bloom—coreopsis and zinnia and Black-eyed Susan and coneflower and crape myrtle and four-o’clocks and hydrangea. Our “back yard” is actually “The Woods,” a small forest of Appalachian cove hardwoods.

But—and it is a major “but”—we have been struggling for some time with how to make Nancy’s painting studio and my workshop more functional. So far, all our ideas involve major contortions that only take us part way towards a solution. So, we thought we should look around.

Someone asked if we were downsizing. “At our age,” that would make sense. We are certainly factoring into our decision-making the capability of living on one level (not an option in our current tri-level), and we are actively shedding possessions. But downsizing the inhabitable number of square feet is not a primary concern. A larger studio and shop might actually result in upsizing.

During all this deliberation, I have kept coming back to the question, does this make sense? And the undercurrent of the question is its continuation—does this make sense “at our age?” [Re “our age,” I am, as I said, 69. Nancy is … younger.]

OnBeing recently broadcast Krista Tippett’s interview with Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson and author of Composing a Life and the more recent Composing a Further Life: the Age of Active Wisdom. Two ideas I heard in the interview resonate with these deliberations. First, “at our age,” many of us can still look forward to an extended period of active life. Second, Bateson describes those who compose their lives as participant-observers—observing but at the same time fully present.

The term, participant-observer, strikes a chord with both of us. Much of Nancy’s graduate studies involved participatory action research, combining intentionality and reflection. For me, he term calls up Richard Rohr’s call to action and contemplation, emphasis on the “and.” It reminds me, too, that in walking a labyrinth, we go inward, but then we come out again. To be deeply observant and open while at the same time actively engaged—that is how I hope to live out my life. And that brings me back to our shop and studio. To honor the deep joy we feel when gardening or painting or crafting or building—to honor that joy by paying it due attention and by spending ourselves in its service—makes sense, even at our age.

I am reminded of a passage I recently read in Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams.

(Aside: Kingsolver is one of my three favorite novelists; the other two are Ann Patchett and Isabel Allende. I have concluded that I could never be a book critic, because I cannot tell you why I respond powerfully to a given passage. But my experience on re-reading Animal Dreams—actually a common experience with any book I like—brings to mind a road trip we once took. We were driving US 26 east through the Wind River Range in Wyoming. On rounding a curve and catching a view of cliffs ahead, an involuntary, Oh!, rose from my diaphragm. But even as the Oh! was forming, the curve continued, exposing more of the spectacular view, and more, and more. And my Oh! came out as a long undulating O…o…o…oh! So with this book.)

In the book, Hallie, volunteering in Nicaragua as an agricultural pest consultant during that country’s civil war, admonishes Codi, her sister back in the States, to not put her (Hallie) on a pedestal, and to let go her (Codi’s) fear of loving and losing. “Wars and elections are both too big and too small to matter in the long run. The daily work—that goes on, it adds up. … I can’t tell you how good it feels. I wish you knew. … I wish you knew how to squander yourself.”

Remember parable of the man who built more barns to store his abundant harvest? At our age, at any age, to hoard may be a greater sin than to spend, even squander, the gifts we are given.

Update. We found a house we like, with lots of potential for shop and studio and gardening and observing the natural world. Nancy will miss her frog pond, and the topography of new place will make creating another so close to the viewing window a challenge. But there is potential for a wetland in the distance and a vegetable garden.

Sure, it’s a risk. But later in the week, from an essay by Natalie Goldberg (“A Student Again,” in The Great Spring), I read, “I don’t want to die. … But death will find me … Then this single thought: Give everything while you can.”