Tag Archives: play

Thoughts from the Road

I have been on the road. I visited my 95-year-old mother late last week. Found her much as in other recent visits, a little weaker each time, but not dramatically so. A few days later, I got a 4 am call from her nursing home that she had just passed away.

Until age 90, she had been unusually active and healthy. Disgustingly so, we might say in jest. No prescription medications. Living on her own. Driving. Visiting the less fortunate shut-ins of her church. Not so healthy in recent years, she had spent the last three in the nursing home. Vision problems deprived her of her beloved reading. Hearing problems made conversation difficult and TV impossible (although, aside from Jeopardy, she had never had much use for that medium). The joys of life were increasingly harder to find, and she had long been ready to meet her maker. For some time she’s been telling people she had awakened disappointed that God did not take her in the night. Yet she still continued to defy expectations.

When I would visit, I would take her a cup of coffee. The nursing home coffee was tepid and so weak that you could see the bottom of the cup. We would sit together, each sipping our McDonalds Senior Coffees. This last trip, I could not even do that. She was restricted to thickened beverages, and thickened coffee was intolerable. Her final illness was swift and merciful.

So I have made two round trips to North Carolina in a week. And while my travels were focused on my mother, this post is not really about her. I am not ready to do that yet. My travels did, however, generate some figurative side trips, and memories of some real ones, running through my head alongside the thoughts surrounding Mother’s death. The side trips, I can write about.

Side Trip #1: I listened to lots of political news on the radio as I drove. Senate hearings and other major drama. Abundant occasion for raised blood pressure. Sadness. Despair.

As I walked into the hotel early this week, the ubiquitous silent TV monitor showed a banner running along the bottom of the news channel: The president’s daughter is surprised at the vehemence of her father’s critics. Huh? Her father is vehemence-in-chief!! How can the reaction of his detractors be a surprise? It’s a basic biological reaction: fight attack with counter-attack!

Did you catch that? That I am part of the problem? My sarcastic response is vehemence and anger returned. I am truly fearful and angry at the president’s agenda and actions. If he succeeds, many will be hurt, including some in my immediate family. But what if he fails? If he fails, his many supporters will be presumably be angry and hurt (and fearful?). And that is the scariest part of all. I do not know how to relate to his supporters, and they do not know how to relate to me. No matter which side prevails, a large portion of our citizenry will be hurt and angry and left out. We—our country and our world—are in a deep bind. And I do not see any political leader with a vision for bridging that divide.

In Monday’s meditation, Richard Rohr wrote:

Don’t waste any time dividing the world into the good guys and the bad guys. Hold them both together in your own soul—where they are anyway—and you will have held together the whole world. You will have overcome the great divide in one place of spacious compassion. You, little you, will have paid the price of redemption. God takes it from there, replicating the same pattern in another conscious human life.

I wish I had that faith, and the wherewithal to “hold Trump and anti-Trump together in my own soul.” For now, it remains merely a hope. The only one I have to cling to.

Side Trip #2: On a lighter note: I am not a photographer. I’m not skilled at it, nor do I often even think of capturing an image or event until the opportunity is gone. I did not think to photograph the raccoon groping in Nancy’s frog pond in the middle of the night. I did not think to photograph the red-tailed hawk drinking from the pond early one morning. But the one I did think about—the one that would not have been able to escape before I grabbed my phone and pressed the shutter, the one that would have lifted the dark tone of this post toward a healthy chuckle—that one I saw on my travels this week. But I did not turn around, park on the shoulder, get out of my truck, cross traffic to the median, and take the shot. It was indeed an image worth many words. And since I did not take the photo, you will have to indulge my words. Imagine a tractor-trailer. The trailer is a fuel tanker. The rig is stalled, partially blocking the right-hand lane. It is surrounded by a protective row of orange cones. Emblazoned on the rear of the trailer is the company name: RELIABLE.

Side Trips Galore: Over the years, I have made that trip to North Carolina more than a hundred times. Four hours, one way, via I-40. And I have taken about every alternative route and side trip that I could find on the map. US 25/70 from Newport to Asheville via Hot Springs is an obvious diversion, and I had some especially great drives on its twists and turns when we owned the Miata. US 70 from Old Fort to Hickory is another great alternative, with good views across Lake James into the southern end of the Linville Gorge, interesting restaurants in Morganton, and the Burke County Courthouse, built just a few years after the hanging of Frankie Silver.

If you have the time and an urge for back country, descend the Blue Ridge escarpment from Ridgecrest (Exit 66) to Old Fort via Mill Creek Road, past the artificial Andrews Geyser, a 19th century railroad marketing ploy. For the more adventurous with a couple of hours to spend, make your way between the Harmon Den and Fines Creek exits (7 to 15) via the backroads.

In a hurry? There is still hope. Eastbound, past Newport, take the Wilton Springs exit (440) and follow the Hartford Road to Hartford, where you can re-enter I-40 (Exit 447). You will rarely be out of sight and sound of the interstate, but if you slow down and open the window, you can also hear the Pigeon River, which the road closely hugs. It will add less than ten minutes to your trip, maybe years to your life.

For some reason, I was recently thinking about the line from Tolkien, “Not all those who wander are lost,” and turning it around to say, “All who wander are not lost.” Is it not necessary to wander, to take the occasional side trip? And are these various side trips perhaps key to making sense of our path through life, and to making a positive and creative contribution as we pass through?

Let’s Go To The Woods!

Behind our house is a deep wooded cove running the length of our street and separating us from the rear neighbors by about four hundred feet. Our side of the cove is almost ravine steep, while the far side is gentler, so the wet weather stream that carved this cove is nearer our street than it is to the street behind us. Our property line, while near the horizontal midpoint, is well up the opposite slope.

We have almost no back yard; the woods of our cove come nearly to the back of the house. From our rear windows we watch deer, squirrel, chipmunk. We hear, then see, the pileated woodpecker flashing tree to tree. We hear owls. We watch the progress of the seasons, noting the specific day on which the spring leafing-out suddenly hides the houses behind us. We watch the stream braiding across the flat cove bottom during and after a heavy rain.

From my second story study window, I can see the forest floor littered with downed trunks. We have lived here a quarter of a century, and most of the deadfall still visible has fallen during our tenure. I remember those trunks as standing timber, and they tell much of the history of our association with these woods. A few are oaks, killed by lightening. Most are pines, or the victims of pines.

When we moved here, pines represented a small but noticeable portion of the canopy. Most have fallen, their roots simply unable to keep them aloft. We had an arborist on site shortly after one fell and he affirmed that the tree had been healthy. I don’t know if it is their natural life cycle to get tall and fall, or if perhaps the maturing hardwoods around them change their roots’ ability to grip the soil. For what ever reason, one after another of our stately and seemingly healthy pines has fallen. We had the few that remained preemptively cut down to control the hazard.

In one notable case, a falling pine lodged in a white oak. It was a wet season and, before we could have the pine removed, it had pushed the oak into a large tulip poplar, which itself then leaned farther. Ultimately, that pine pushed down six sizable hardwoods in a line stretching two thirds of a football field from its base and spanning the bottom of the cove.

The back of a neighbor’s lot was once mostly pines, until pine bark beetles killed them all. On one not-notably-windy day, Nancy heard crash after crash from that part of the woods. Later investigation showed that the dead pine trunks had nearly all fallen or been snapped off high up, like some cultic mass suicide. The forest floor was littered with newly downed trunks. Most frightening were the trunk sections that had done a 180 or even a 360 in their descent, diving stunts that left fifteen foot sections planted upright in the soft ground.

Those woods have always been a playground for us. That first year, we built a “fort” at the bottom of the cove for my two boys to use—a two-story affair topped with a tarp in pup tent configuration. Straddling the stream bed, its first floor was two feet above the ground level, reached via a drawbridge from the steep side of the cove. Occasionally my sons would sleep out in the fort. I remember one night all four of us were on its upper deck, watching a deer just below us coming to the stream for a drink.

When we moved in, there was just one path down into the woods from our yard. It went straight down the slope. That was convenient for dragging the lumber for the fort down the hill, but misery for coming back up, not to mention the erosion potential. So we soon began laying out alternative routes using switchbacks. Over the years, various tree falls have necessitated slight alterations, but our original paths are still largely intact.

We use these paths almost daily. Mona and I take long walks on neighborhood streets more days than not, probably logging 400-500 miles a year. But even after a three mile morning walk, she will typically get restless in the afternoon. “Let’s go to the woods!” I’ll say, and she’s alive with anticipation. She will take off down a path, scaring up squirrels, chipmunks, occasional deer. In the woods, she can be free of her leash, roaming freely. She never strays, always staying within eyesight.

Pumpkin, our first dog, I also associate with these woods. She was a skinny stray, abandoned and hungry, watching us build the fort. She was pumpkin-colored, and came to us at harvest time. After we’d adopted her and filled out her ribcage, we had to keep her on a leash in the woods. She was a runner, liked to come home an hour later after a good roll in deer scat.

Twenty-five years of these woods. One dog’s lifetime, and more than half of her replacement’s likely lifespan.

Mona and I used to walk some of the downed tree trunks, ’til the good ones rotted too much for safe footing. I slipped off one of the huge rootballs once. Wet weather. It crumbled underfoot and I ended up flat on my back in the watery hole from whence the rootball had come, briefly stunned, wet and cold. Now I carry my cell phone, and think of my age before embarking on acrobatics.

Nancy, too, uses these paths often. With camera in hand, or just with Mona. We wage a one-family war on poison ivy, English ivy, vinca minor, privet. We gage soil moisture by where the dry stream bed becomes wet, enjoying watching water boil up through small underground passages. We scratch through the gravel beds newly deposited after a major storm.

Over a quarter-century, with near-daily familiarity, you notice changes. Falling trees open up the canopy and then it closes again. The understory changes. Small plots of various ferns and trillium wax and wane with the changes overhead. The past several years have seen our Mayapple area expand ten-fold. Our one patch of bluet shrank to nothing as the canopy closed. It will be interesting to see if it re-emerges this spring; we had to have a large, lightning-damaged white oak felled, re-opening the old bluet site to the sky.

I called the woods our playground. Exclusively ours, it seems. Once in the woods, several acres of forest are open to our enjoyment. None of the neighbors seem to know they exist. We’ve never encountered another person in this playground. In twenty-five years, I’ve heard children’s voices down there only a handful of times, with the exception of my own boys. Seen evidence of children’s play even less, except for paintball hulls, mostly shot from the “safety” of a back deck. Even our youngest had little interest in playing there. This is more than surprising to us. Both Nancy and I grew up spending many happy hours in our own wooded playgrounds. The alleged “nature deficit” of today’s children seems real in my neighborhood.

Time and weather took their toll on our fort, and no one was using it anymore, so we removed it. The corner poles and some of the better flooring got repurposed; the rotted stuff hauled to the landfill. Today, the only evidence of the old fort is a small bench fashioned from part of the drawbridge substructure. I think we have been good stewards of our small piece of nature. We’ve intended to be. We will probably walk those paths until our bodies give out, and then watch from our windows.

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!