Tag Archives: gratitude

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.

Monday and Other Gifts

I am the early riser around our house. I am used to the quiet of just me and the dog, as I do my morning disciplines (or not), eat breakfast, read the daily comics (and just enough news to keep me reasonably abreast but not too depressed), walk the dog, etc.

A few times a year, I wake to find Nancy already up. And whatever it was that got her up early usually has her wired for activity. Yesterday was one of those. I woke to lights on all over the house. She had unloaded, reloaded, and started the dishwasher; scrubbed the kitchen counters; attended the laundry. She was on a tidying and organizing mission that took her from room to room, moving stuff from where it was to where it should be. And she had just discovered water coming from under the fridge. Did I mention it was a Monday?

And then, against expectations, I was gifted—graced with a pause, a reset, a take-a-deep-breath-and-count-to-ten. Against expectations, I didn’t lash out (and only turned sullen for a minute). The water problem was not serious. Nancy sensed that I needed some quiet time and confined her tidying to one part of the house while I made a pot of coffee and retreated to a writing corner with my mug and journal.

My new year seems full of graces and gifts. The projects and tasks on my plate excite me with their challenges; it is a gift to enjoy my work. My family and I are healthy and happy; it is a gift. Nancy and I are scheming and dreaming about the future; it is a gift. Today we scrapped our separate plans and spent much of the day together, taking trash to the dump, searching for my lost keys—the kinds of things old married folks do for excitement. It was a gift.

Customer service has a bad reputation, yet I have had two recent customer service experiences that left me satisfied, even more than satisfied. It was a gift, and I extend kudos to Sears and Home Depot.

It is a gift, I think, when we see and accept the gifts all around us. My Monday was a gift. I hope yours was, too.

A Tribute to Mothers and Fathers

On this Mother’s Day, I pay a tribute to both of my parents and to my in-laws as well. Nancy and I come from long-lived stock, all having made it beyond 85 years of age. Out of our four parents, three are still living.

My father died nine years ago, after several years of declining health. But he had worked until well into his seventies—physical labor, cleaning carpets—until Alzheimer’s robbed him of the capacity to manage himself out in the world. Two traits characterized my father: hard work and diligence. In my childhood, before he was self-employed, he would come home from his eleven-hour day, then, three nights a week, be off again to a meeting at church. He was a servant leader, selected not for charisma but for his faithfulness at getting the job done. For a number of years, his regional church duties included attending the annual national convention, requiring punishing 600-mile-a-day drives to and from the convention site in order to cram it all into his single week of vacation. My brothers and I, who were his helpers after he’d left the office job to be a self-employed carpet cleaner, remember with no great fondness longing to call it a day, while he would scan his work for spots no one else could see and work them one more time.

Having grown up on a farm, he’d done a little bit of everything. From him I learned a little about building fences and simple structures, keeping baby chicks alive on cold early spring nights, saddling and riding a pony, hoeing a garden and staking tomatoes, and that an electrical connection is no good unless you first have a solid mechanical connection.

My mother worked a full career as a school teacher (first and second grades), retired at the normal age, and has lived almost as many years post-retirement as she put into her working life. At age 90, she was still living alone, driving, and visiting “shut-ins,” people often younger than herself who could no longer get out of the house for church and socializing. That independence came to an end a few years ago, but even within the confines of her nursing home, the constant stream of visitors and the interactions with fellow residents testify to her social and nurturing nature. When Jay was born, Nancy’s mother was not available, so mine came to stay with us for a few days. Nancy still tells how my mother quietly, almost invisibly, kept the kitchen and laundry going, was there when asked for advice, but carefully allowed the new mom take the lead.

Mother, too, was a farm child. My childhood summers included “putting up” large quantities of food for the winter: shelling peas, stringing and canning beans, shucking corn, picking blackberries (and scratching chiggers), making jams and tomato juice and pickles. We almost always had dessert with our meals and, until her move to the nursing home, most of my adulthood visits with her included bringing back with me some homemade cookies or cake or pie.

Nancy’s parents have had some medical ups and downs, but are currently healthy—still driving and living independently, snowbirds making an annual migration between homes in Florida and Tennessee. From her mother, Nancy got her artistic eye and ear; from her father, mechanical aptitude; from both parents, the gifts of curiosity and a sense of adventure. From her mother, Nancy learned to question medical authority and get a second opinion (today they refer to her affectionately as their “medical director”); from her father, how to be a good assistant and anticipate the needs of those around her (a much-appreciated attribute when we work on projects together).

When Nancy and I were dating, her mother would carefully tell me how she prepared various dishes; knowing Nancy’s disinclination to cook, her mother assumed it would be up to me to keep us fed. Her mother is highly organized, and as our wedding date approached, she prepared detailed to do lists for Nancy, Nancy’s father, and herself. She was careful not to presume, but when she offered to do the same for me, I gratefully accepted.

The house we bought was a handyman special—still structurally OK, but sadly bereft of basic maintenance. I was out of town on business during the pre-signing inspection, so Nancy’s parents accompanied her. They pointed out broken locks and non-functioning electrical switches and outlets, while sellers’ realtor appeared disinterested and unsympathetic. Then Nancy’s father touched together the bare wires that once fed an over-sink light. The resulting flash and pop were marvelously effective at getting the realtor’s attention.

Among the deficiencies of the house was a rather grubby laundry area in the rather grubby garage. Shortly after we’d moved in, I got a call at work from Nancy, telling me that her dad was tearing out a wall, in preparation for constructing a proper laundry room. To this day, our laundry/utility room is affectionately called The Walter Room.

To our parents, and to parents everywhere, thanks.

Somewhat Stunned

Twenty-six years ago today, we went on our first date. It was, as I have said many times, the toughest job interview I ever endured. From “How do you spend money?” to “What did you learn from your divorce?”, I was grilled, poked, and prodded.

A week earlier, my friend, Peggy, had asked, “Are you ready to meet someone?” Good question. After two years of separation/divorce, I was still seeing the therapist I’d gone to in hopes of saving the last marriage. Still working on some things about myself I recognized a need to change. Lonely, still hurting, but also hopeful. I said, “Yes.” Armed with a name and phone number, I made the call.

I don’t think my adolescent date requests were any scarier than this one. Perhaps they never get any less scary—I’m not planning to run the experiment. Anyhow, I expected a short phone call; she either turns me down, or we set a date and time. Some of you are thinking, “He must have played hooky the day they handed out boy-girl skills.” The rest of you also missed that day; you feel my pain.

That first phone call lasted an hour and a half. It was, in light of what was to come, a gentle inquisition. Pleasant, even. We talked about books that had had an impact on us.  She told me of her three years in Taiwan and her current passions. I mentioned that I had two children; she replied, “You are fortunate.”

Actually, the date itself, despite the job interview overtones, was not an unpleasant experience. I think I had recently crossed some sort of threshold in my own interior work, and was ready. If our first date had occurred even a few weeks earlier, I suspect it would have been a disaster. As it happened, in one of those gifts of synchronicity and grace, I was ready to be vulnerable and sensed that Nancy was safe to be vulnerable to.

We talked until three am. Seven weeks later, we were engaged; seven months later, married. I remain grateful—and somewhat stunned.

Snow Day Redux

It’s a snowy day, the first of the season. I was up early, doing my morning pages and watching the snow and wondering if I’d venture out for my usual Wednesday morning men’s group session. And then I remembered another snowy day, almost 18 years ago. I dug out what I’d written that day. So much changes over two decades, but then again, not much.

Snow Day

At 5 am, the rain is laced with sleet.  On a normal day, I treasure the stillness and solitude of 5 am.  I’ve been known to choke the pendulum on the Regulator clock into silence and pull the plug on our tabletop fountain, their tick, tock, drip, and splash too garish in the early morning calm; I’ve strained to hear tranquil rain above the hum of refrigerator in the next room and jetliner six miles up.  Today, with the weather on the fence, curiosity outweighs my need for solitude, and I admit muted TV weather watchers into my journaling and prayer time.  I watch the growing list of school closings and let Doppler images compete with Nehemiah, fasting in captivity, mourning his beloved Jerusalem.  I contemplate how I will spend the day, if the weather breaks my way.

By 6:30, rain and sleet give way to snow, and white accumulates on lawn and street.  Local schools are closed, and I intercept my teenage son on his way to the shower.  I go back to bed.  Snow is a gift, not least for the chance of extra sleep.

At 8, I wake again.  The world is white—every trunk and branch and twig.  My youngest is awake.  He turns four today and already has two unplanned presents: a snow day, and a big brother to share it with.  If he were older and self-entertaining, my love and I might stay in bed till noon.  I fantasize, but not for long.

How will I spend this snow day?  I could brave the slippery streets and clump around the office in hiking boots and jeans and bulky sweater, one of the male majority who consider ourselves essential to the economy and our driving skills well above average.  I could stay home and chafe at the inconvenience, trapped in childcare and domesticity.  I’ve done both.

Or I can accept this day as a gift, six-pointed grace.  I call the office and say I’m staying home.  “Call if you need me.”  They won’t, and I won’t mind.

In all honesty, I should confess that I’m underemployed right now and would have had to take a day or so off anyway.  But I’d stay home even if it were a busy week.

The snow took out a pine tree, laid it neatly on the path that switchbacks down to the kids’ fort.  Most of the pines in my oak woods lean and droop on a good day, and this giant’s snow heavy top got the better of its roots.  An oak, itself an affront to gravity leaning 40 degrees off plumb, snagged the top 15 feet off the pine on its way down.  That lethal widowmaker hangs 30 feet in the air, its 8” diameter butt-end a jagged warning flag of yellow against black bark, green needles, and gray sky.  Come spring, we’ll have to build a new stretch of trail through the poison ivy, briars, and deadfall.  Come spring, we’ll have muddy shoes and pants to clean as the four-year-old climbs the newly formed mountain of roots and explores the crater they once occupied.

The snow makes disappointing sledding.  We tromp through the woods to explore the downed tree, bombarded by soggy tufts of slush from the canopy.  Wet cold hands soon bring us inside.  We make cake and cookies for the birthday celebration.  I do a workout, some writing, some housework, enjoying the slow pace of a snow day.

I’ve had a lot of snow days in the past two years, though few with real snow.  Leave without pay.  Not enough work.  Days when I stayed home and played with my son or took him to the zoo.  Days when I painted the house.  Days when I wrote.  A long Gulf Coast vacation.

Those days are joy; I relish the re-creating freedom and opportunity.  Loss of income is a serious downside, to be sure.  But the nights of waking in dry-mouthed, heart-pounding fear of unemployment have been rare.  I more often feel on the threshold of something exciting.

Chronologically, I’m on the threshold of Modern Maturity, which will be arriving in my mailbox any day now.  But my snow days are not about withdrawal and winding down.  They are days of discovery—that I have creative gifts, healing gifts, spiritual gifts to be nurtured and used.

In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis says of his fellow bus travelers, “They were all fixed faces, full not of possibilities, but of impossibilities.”  That is the face I see in the mirror that scares and haunts me.  Gaunt, tight, sunken cheeked, steeled against the world, seeing only today and an endless string of todays.  

More than most, I’ve resisted change and run from risk.  Once I wore a mustache for 21 years; having grown it to spite my father, I forgot what I looked like underneath and couldn’t make the leap to rediscover myself or him.  I count my life as two decades of childhood, two of stagnation, and one of belated climbing out of ruts.  Snow days are for climbing out of ruts.

And what of my next decade?  Where will it take me?  Patching up my dis-integrated life is a priority.  I am tired of this piecemeal life in which the way I earn a living interferes with the way I find fulfillment.  With Frost, “My goal in living is to unite my avocation and my vocation…”  To write, to serve and heal hurt children, to love, to worship and pray—that is the description of my dream vocation.  Snow days are experiments and practice for my next career, whose outlines I barely discern and whose details I have not yet imagined.

The next day, streets are clear, schools open, and life back to routine.  In separate casual conversations, two people I barely know ask if I made it in to work the day before.  The first seems shocked and dismayed when I say I could have, but didn’t; with the precision of a practiced commuter, she details for me her route, the road conditions, and just how many extra minutes her trip had taken.  The other, like me, had voluntarily stayed home and enjoyed every minute.  Her face is all smile as she recounts telling her husband she might just quit work and stay home for good.  Yeah!

Dancing

If I were to ever undertake the discipline of centering prayer, as have a number of my friends, I’d choose as my sacred word, dancing.

On our first date, Nancy and I tried dancing to the music of a Zydeco band. The results were laughable, but we signed up for dancing lessons, and by the end of the course, had set a wedding date. In those giddy days of new love, we’d sometimes start dancing to the piped-in music in the grocery store. The topper on our wedding cake was a dancing couple. The band for the reception was chosen for the danceability of its music.

Those days are long gone. But sometimes, life itself seems a dance, in which the events of our lives are our partners and each step we take is in response to their moves. It is easy to think of dancing to the hug of a grandchild; the yellow and blue of maple leaves against an October sky; the silence of snowfall; work well done or a game well played. Then we get knocked for a loop; by illness, betrayal, loss. For a time, we feel more like a pinball, battered by events beyond our control. But then, by grace, we find the rhythm and the grace, and we take up the dance again.

In Robert Earl Keen’s song, “No Kinda Dancer,” the chorus goes:

     I tried hard to tell you I was no kinda dancer
     ‘Took my hand to prove I was wrong
     You guided me gently
     Though I thought I could never
     We were dancing together at the end of the song

Can you find a better definition of love than this—the lover leading us beyond our self-imposed “can’t,” into a world of greater possibilities? I have received such gifts, as God, the ultimate lover, sometimes acting through Nancy or another agent, has led me, pushed me, “guided me gently” to places “I thought I could never.”

In literal, physical terms, I remain “no kinda dancer,” the aforementioned lessons notwithstanding. We haven’t danced in years. I sometimes fantasize that we’ll take lessons again, that we’ll move like Jennifer Lopez and Richard Gere in Shall We Dance, that we’ll tango like Jessica Biel and Colin Firth in Easy Virtue. Not likely. But, the larger dances still go on. And there is always hope.

That’s what dancing means to me: hope, gratitude, grace, thanksgiving, love.

     And it made me feel lucky that I had a partner
     to teach me the dance steps
     And come back again

Advent, So Far

We are a third of the way through December and halfway through Advent, and the fall leaf show keeps on coming. On this morning’s walk with Mona, I saw two different Japanese maples, only half denuded; their fallen drapery carpeting the ground underneath with the same scarlet as that remaining on their limbs. Farther down the street, bright yellow adorned a tree I cannot identify. Nor could the lady of the house, out retrieving her morning paper.

Apparently, we are not very social; the holiday busyness others brag/complain of has never afflicted us in past years. This year, however, is an exception, due mostly to music groups that Nancy has joined. Her community band is busy giving concerts in nursing homes, and another group performed two sing-along presentations of “The Messiah” this past weekend. Our Sunday morning ensemble also has new music to learn.

Nancy’s now the proud owner of full-sized concert bells, a beautiful instrument weighing nearly 40 pounds, which is lugged back and forth between home and church or home and band three or more times a week. Adding in the bass drum she also uses in the band, inventing schemes for transporting musical instruments has become a major part of our lives.

As to Christmas decoration, we traditionally tend toward the church calendar more than the secular one. That is, the decorations do not go up on Thanksgiving to be taken down on the 26th. Rather, we wait until closer to Christmas, and leave them up until Epiphany. The big star is the exception. We like to get it up early in Advent. This year, like our holiday busyness, our decorating schedule is topsy-turvy. Nancy was in the attic shortly after Thanksgiving, and dragged out the Christmas stuff while she was at the other task. So the tree, the lighted wreath adorning our dining room picture window (two-sided, so attractive from indoors or out), and the twinkle lights above the door went up early. But rainy weather prevented hanging the star, which still sits on the porch. I willingly procrastinate on that task; I hate ladders.

That star is a convex sheet metal construction, 36 inches point-to-point, mounted several inches in front of a larger plywood background. A light bulb is fixed in the concavity, so what is seen from the street is the white outline of the metal star. It is a fairly large device, hanging in the peak above the second story. Three years ago, a gust of wind lifted it off its hook. I found it the next morning, quivering above the point embedded in our son’s window ledge. Lethal when flying! So I added a safety screw, driven into the siding. Hanging it now requires two trips up the ladder; one with the star, the next with the drill-driver. Did I mention that I hate ladders?

I am writing this while sitting in the waiting room of Nancy’s doctor. Little more than a year ago, I accompanied her on these trips because she was nearly immobilized. Then came bi-lateral hip joint replacement, enabling her to return to gardening and hardscaping and other physical activity. Today, I am here in my role as sherpa for the musical instruments; her band is playing for hospital staff at lunchtime. In Nancy’s return to music, to painting, to health, we have much for which to be grateful.