Tag Archives: gratitude

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.

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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?

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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.

First Spring at New House

“I haven’t seen many trillium so far,” Nancy commented. It’s our first Spring at New House, and what will come popping out of the ground is still a mystery. At Old House, we had a couple of sections of woods that were almost carpeted in trillium. 

I replied that I had seen a few, all in our paths, being trampled by our feet and The Goat. (More on The Goat later.) “Maybe we have a rare subspecies, path trillium.” That was many weeks ago, and we are indeed blessed with trillium, in woods and meadow and, yes, even in the paths. Trillium and so much more! 

First came the crocus. Spring begins for me then, when the crocus push their thin green leaves up through the winter brown, six weeks or so ahead of calendar spring. I am not one of those gardeners who keeps records of the what and when of emergence and bloom. Not even in my head do I remember the order, and there are so many plants, even ones Nancy has long cultivated, whose identities I can’t recall. Regardless, Spring is always one “Wow!” after another, from crocus emergence until well into summer. Our first spring at New House has been a delight. 

We have had an abundance of Spring’s showy flowers. Daffodil and redbud and dogwood and azalea and rhododendron. Even the carpet of violets in The Meadow was stunning. I could never make up my mind about the violets in the yard at Old House: Were we aiming for suburban lawn or wild meadow? Here at New House, the choice for wild meadow is clear. 

As exciting, however, are the more subtle plants. The aforementioned trillium. The unfurling umbrellas of the mayapple. Wood hyacinth. Bloodroot. 

Nancy first noticed the white blossoms of bloodroot peeking from the edge of a leaf pile. We are still trying to figure out what to do with the bounty of leaves our trees drop in the fall. Some of my choices in the rush of last fall were … well, it won’t happen again. I had to move that pile of leaves to unburden the bloodroot. 

Have I mentioned that our new place is steep? Take an already steep hillside—it falls seventy feet in three hundred. Cut a bench for driveway, house, and garage. What do you get? Escarpments above and below the bench. We live at the top of the lot and much of our gardening will take place below. We have not found a way to get from bottom to top without some forty-five degree climbing. (Nancy’s father will testify to how steep it is. He experienced a pacemaker event after climbing back to the house.) Lugging tools and materials is a challenge. So we bought The Goat. It’s a four-wheel-drive electrically-powered walk-behind cart. Not a toy, it has a ten cubic foot bed and a flat land capacity of 750 pounds. On our 1-to-1 slopes, it has no problem controlling heavy loads going downhill and hauling tools and trash and rock up. So, The Goat and I moved that huge pile of leaves from beside the driveway to the bottom of The Meadow.

(“The Goat,” by the way, is our nickname for our more prosaically-named Overland Cart. We wanted to convey the idea of a sure-footed beast of burden. Kawasaki had co-opted Mule; Yak and Llama are too exotic. I’m not being prudish, but The Ass does not roll off the tongue, although The Donkey almost does, despite the extra syllable. The Jack? The Jenny? Nah! So we are back to the gender-neutral Goat.)

What’s missing from our normal spring sensory feast is the mating calls of the frogs. Nancy hasn’t yet replaced the frog pond we left behind at Old House. While the new occupants of Old House occasionally send a photo, and we can sometimes hear frogs in the distance, it’s not like having that cacophony just beyond your picture window. 

In other wildlife news, we have a pair of crazed bluebirds who have been flying against our windows for the past two months. As happened last year at Old House, this jealous pair is more interested in attacking their reflections in the windows than in settling down to raise a brood. So far, they have inspected and rejected the woodpecker hole in our house siding and the bluebird boxes that I put up for their convenience. Nancy had tacked a long fluttery piece of plastic sheet to the side of the house to drive off the woodpecker. It worked on the woodpecker, but is no deterrent for the bluebirds.

If there is a downside to spring, it is poison ivy. Would Tennessee still be “the greenest state in the land of the free” without poison ivy? We are “blessed” with the stuff, and with English ivy as well. We have declared war on both, a statement that will draw laughs from all who hear it. We will keep you posted. 

Nancy has been finding four-leaf clovers. She has a facility for seeing that pattern in seemingly casual glances at the ground. I have always found it a remarkable skill, having never found one myself without her first pointing out a general location. But it occurred to me just a few days ago that I have a similar facility for finding poison ivy. A nearly subconscious part of my brain will register the distinctive pattern of leaves (or patterns, plural, as the plant has lots of variety), then I stop and consciously search it out so I can spray or pull or step over. In a recent episode of “On Being,” Krista Tippett’s guest talked of the 500,000 generations of mankind as wild animal before civilization (the invention of agriculture) a mere 500 generations ago. Is it that wild animal part of our brains—the sub-conscious, pre-conscious part—that recognizes the pattern of the four-leaf clover or the three-leaved poison ivy? Occasionally, as I am walking, it will come to me that, for instance, the ball of my right foot will land on a particular sidewalk crack five steps from now. It is not a trick I can consciously replicate, nor is that insight always present. But when it comes, it is invariably correct. Useless in the current context, but not hard to imagine the survival value of sensing where your foot is about to land, or distinguishing a copperhead’s pattern in the leaf litter. 

Speaking of snakes, one day, as Nancy was going up the hill from The Meadow while I was still below, she called back a question: Do blacksnakes try to “rattle?” She’d seen it and was confident it was not a rattler. It turns out that they do try to emulate that hair-raising sound. We have not seen it again. We are glad it is nearby, though would prefer to only see it at a distance. All the more reason to roll that rodent-friendly ivy farther from the house.

It is nearly Summer now. Spring’s yellow and white and magenta and red and purple have mostly morphed into the deep green of a Southern summer. The early morning tapping of bluebirds on the window has waned. We have some vegetables in the ground, and some wildflower seeds sprinkled in The Meadow.

There is “a ton” of work still to be done, in our house and on our grounds and at church. But we wake every morning thankful that we find the work is mostly play as well, and that we have the capacity to do it and the opportunity to choose that day’s agenda.

It was a wild and wonderful spring. Anne Lamott says there are only three prayers: Help! Thank you! and Wow! So, “Thank you!” and “Wow!” Amen.

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.

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.”

The Long and Winding Lint Road

Our dryer failed. The one my parents gave us as a wedding present. Almost 27 years ago. They just don’t make ‘em like they used to!

I had opened the dryer to check on a load of towels, and found them stone cold and as wet as when removed from the washer. Tried different heat settings. Nope. No heat. Oh well, I didn’t really want a drill press. Deep in my heart of hearts, I was really wanting a new dryer.

Our dryer had been getting less and less effective, even when it had a working heating element. Two-and-a-half hours to dry a load of towels. I kept wondering whether the exhaust duct was filled with lint, but when I held my hand at the end, the flow seemed strong. Shows how little I know.

When we added on to our house a quarter-century ago, dryer efficiency was not high on our priority list, and we ended up with a long and twisting mess of a duct run. Half was flexible tubing draped around the backs of some cabinets; the other half, rigid metal zig-zagging inaccessibly through the HVAC chase. So actually checking on the extent of our dryer lint buildup seemed a can of worms I’d rather not open. But, with a dead dryer,  we’d be opening one end anyway. I did some research. Did you know that dryer lint is a major cause of house fires? Did you know they have these handy kits at your local hardware store for cleaning out the insides of your dryer ducts?

So we took the plunge. Actually, Nancy did the hard part. While I was napping (what are Sunday afternoons for?), she pulled the washer and dryer away from the wall, stripped out all the accessible flexible ducting, and cleaned the floor under the machines. And the walls. And the pipes and hoses and other nooks and crannies. Amazing how much dust and lint and unmentionable mess can accumulate behind and under an appliance.

I then did the cool stuff, chucking the brush from our new duct cleaning kit into my drill and spinning it through the inaccessible part of the run.

Worked like a charm, even going through two right angle bends. We reamed out an embarrassing quantity of dryer lint, gave thanks that our house still stands, and then faced how to replace the flexible stuff (and associated dips and turns) with smooth rigid metal ducting.

The latter took an additional half day: sawing out the backs of a couple of cabinets and connecting the shiny new duct sections. That oscillating saw I bought a year ago earned its keep.

The real stress, however, was buying the replacement appliances. Yes, appliances, plural. The washer was nearly as old as the dryer and had been requiring more and more vinegar to keep the musty odor in check. Fortunately, the dryer died during the Memorial Day sales. (Or are appliances like some other markets in which there is always a sale going on?)

How should we choose among the many brands and models and features? Do glass lids and sculpted sheet metal really add value? How many sensors and settings do we need? What is really useful and what is hype? Wifi capability? You’re kidding, right?

No wifi. I don’t want a close and personal relationship with my dryer. And I don’t want to give the cyber-sleaze additional portals into my life.

We ended up with an unmatched pair—a relatively unadorned dryer that looks like appliances used to look, and a glass-lidded, sculpted metal washer whose irresistible siren call was its huge tub size and its deeply-discounted closeout pricing. No more jamming oversized comforters into the washer; this baby could wash a car cover. We can barely reach the bottom.  A short person would need a step stool to empty it.

An expensive experience for sure! But some good came of it. We resolved a safety hazard. And we have this nifty duct cleaning kit. I’ll let you use it in exchange for, say, a half-hour of garden weeding? A cup of coffee and a Donut Palace apple fritter? The use of your drill press? Or just a few minutes of good conversation.

P.S. In the under-dryer detritus, Nancy found her wedding ring—the spare one, bought during her pregnancy. Our son had borrowed and lost it back in his middle school years. No wonder we couldn’t find it when we ran a metal detector over neighborhood yards!

 

 

The Questions

For much of my adult life, I have been trying to figure out what I want to be “when I grow up.” Some are born knowing the answer to that question, develop a plan for achieving it, and follow the plan. For the rest of us, there is a whole self-help industry. I once had a small bookshelf devoted to the topic.

I have explored the color of my parachute; chronicled and charted successes and failures, likes and dislikes, aptitudes and attitudes; and, at one time or another, laid claim to a third of the Myers-Briggs types. Several career changes and two retirements later, I’ve come no closer to the answer than Zen-like koans to the effect that the journey itself is the destination.

But I am still a fan of the genre, particularly the underlying principle that we are born with a true self and a true purpose, and that our search for career—for vocation—is a sacred journey back to the God-given calling we have somehow lost. If I am doing “the work you have given us to do” (Book of Common Prayer, p 366), I will be energized by that work. If instead, I am dragged down by what fills my waking hours, perhaps it is not my work to do. The work may be valuable, even essential, but not mine.

Where I might differ with the find-your-true-career gurus is in the implicit assumption that a calling once found is mine for all time. That I have spent so much time in search does not mean I’ve never found the deep energizing satisfaction of knowing why I am here and what I am called to do. I have, a number of times and for extended periods. But not forever. There will be no neat summary on my tombstone.

One of the favored exercises in the self-help toolkit is to look to our earliest childhood memories—to what engaged our energies and imaginations—and to seek there the seeds of the calling we were born to. At this exercise, I am a total failure. Nancy can remember the dress she wore to her fifth birthday party. I can barely remember being a child.

I was reminded of this exercise when I encountered Courtney Martin’s March 10 On Being blog post entitled, “What Was Your First Question?” As you might expect from the title, her approach asks what the child found troubling and has spent a lifetime trying to explore or resolve. Beginning with how the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 shaped the life and work of Dorothy Day, she writes of other famous people whose early experiences led them to a life’s work devoted to questioning the status quo and healing its wounds. She then recounts her personal slow realization of a unifying thread in her own life and work.

So far, at least, I am as much a failure at this exercise as at the earlier ones. I have not found the unifying thread in my own life, nor guidance for the future. But it is an intriguing question on which I’ll continue to gnaw.

Parker Palmer, another On Being blogger, asks a different question, one more relevant to me at this stage of my life. His February 22 post, “Withering Into the Truth,” is a reflection on aging as he approaches his 78th birthday. I am less than a decade behind him, and musing about similar issues.

First, he redirects my thoughts from past to present. Quoting from his own poem, “Harrowing,” he says

I plowed to unearth last year’s reasons—
The farmer plows to plant a greening season.

Looking back is valuable, to a point. But there comes a time when plowing up the past is no longer productive, and it is time to look forward and plant something new.

Then, apropos of my own struggles with too much stuff, he rephrases the question about what to let go of and what to hang on to, replacing “hang on to” with “give myself to.” He writes, “The desire to “hang on” comes from a sense of scarcity and fear. The desire to “give myself” comes from a sense of abundance and generosity.” It seems a critical distinction, whether addressing the tools and wood scraps in my shop or the non-physical baggage of my life. And it is reminiscent of the adage of an unclutter-your-life guru that Nancy has been reading: Does it spark joy? If not, throw it out.

Back to Palmer and this particularly rich post. He claims the most important sentence he ever wrote was the single word, “Enough.” To say “enough” is to reject more. At first, I thought Palmer meant rejecting the unnecessary and unimportant tasks and burdens and detritus we allow ourselves to be weighed down by. Perhaps. But he is also saying “enough” to what is wrong in the world. “Enough” to hatred and prejudice and selfishness and exclusion, to cruelty and injustice. To say “enough” in the face of evil is not to walk away from it, but to face it with a resounding “this far and no farther.” To say “no” sometimes requires us to take on a countervailing “yes.”

This, too, I struggle with. What am I called to give myself to? In what way am I called to “show an affirming flame?” I’m still seeking the answers. And I’m grateful to Martin and Palmer and, yes, to Auden, for raising and re-phrasing the questions.