Someone mentioned recently that it had been a long time since my last post.
I have tried. I tried to write about the paths we have been making in our woods. Paths to get us past the unwelcoming poison ivy and English ivy and into the woods more intimately (plus providing edges from which to tackle those unwelcome ivies). Alternative paths in order to give a rest to our one road down into the meadow, a rest to the roots of that magnificent chestnut oak over which the old logging road runs.
I thought to write about our New Year’s resolution, “No Contractors in 2020,” and how it had to give way to the need to replace our corroded cast iron waste plumbing with new PVC (requiring boring underneath the basement slab and cutting a large hole in the laundry room floor), plus the need to install a radon removal system.
I thought to write about how the Covid-19 isolation has given us time for projects at home, but also allowed the weeds to take over the church gardens we used to tend. Or perhaps about how much more relaxed I find my music practice sessions, now that I do not have to face my teacher each week. Or about the books I am pulling off my shelves for a second or third or fourth reading.
But the unrelenting news of yet more police killings of non-whites, in particular the gruesomeness of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, makes the above topics seem silly and inconsequential.
Where and to what am I called in the face of overwhelming evidence that our society contains deeply engrained racism? Where and to what am I called as I begin to acknowledge at this late stage of my life how I have benefitted from this racism? As I listen to black parents’ talking about the cautions they give to their sons when they go out at night, cautions I never had to give to my own sons? As I listen to tales of being pulled over and harassed for Driving While Black, tales not just from distant anonymous strangers, but from people I know?
It has to start inside me—reflecting deeply on what “white privilege” has given me and listening deeply to the stories of those excluded. It has to start with my paying attention each time my internal dialog makes a distinction between an “us” and a “they,” whether that distinction is based on skin color, wealth, education, or politics.
Typically, when I write these posts, I start with an idea, then struggle to find the ending. But the ending usually comes; some resolution ties the original starting point into a satisfactory literary unit. This particular post has languished for weeks, and I have found no satisfactory way of wrapping it up. Perhaps that is the point after all. A beginning. Unfinished work.
I had personal business in Augusta, Georgia, recently. The plan was to drive down Sunday after church in Nancy’s van, leaving her my truck with questionable tires and brakes. I got a late start by deciding to go home after church and change into more comfortable travel clothes. Then, when I stopped at Sonic for a quick lunch, the van would not re-start. Nancy was nearby in the truck, but my attempt to jump one vehicle from the other failed. It took an hour for AAA to arrive before I could finally get underway.
I had another delay at the North Carolina state line—DOT had left a bunch of orange cones in one lane of I-40 and the merge process took three-quarters of an hour. (I later caught the tail end of a news story claiming that they are reinforcing the concrete barrier between the east-bound and west-bound lanes, but no construction equipment was present when I passed by.)
I ran out of daylight around Hendersonville. Felt, but did not see the descent into the Green River Gorge. Caught the merest glimpse of lights dotting the South Carolina Piedmont as I-26 dropped off the Blue Ridge escarpment, and was still two-and-a-half hours from my destination.
Apparently, I am out of practice with this travel business. Planned the route before leaving home? No. Checked for traffic delays? No. Packed toothpaste? No.
Once in South Carolina, I needed route guidance. The simple stay-on-the-Interstates route is indirect. Think of a triangle. You want to get from point A to point C, but the Interstate route takes you first through point B. The “direct” route from A to C is anything but—a zig-zag of two-lane state roads through small towns, a route not in my memory bank. I did not have a paper map, and my phone’s battery was depleting fast.
Oops! Nancy had had trouble with trying to charge her phone from a USB port in her van, so she’d bought an external backup. My phone is the same model. I had not brought her external battery. No problem, I can charge the phone from my computer. Oops! I had not packed the dongle that links the Thunderbolt port on my computer to a USB phone charging cable. And where had I made reservations for the night? For some reason, that email confirmation was not showing up in my Mail app.
As it turns out, my phone did accept power from the van’s USB. When the time came make the route choice, I took the leap into the lesser-known two-lane zig-zag. These roads were nearly deserted. Was this wise?
In retrospect, it turned out to be an OK trip. Lots of annoyances, no big disasters. But it left me wondering, should I 1) travel more, 2) travel less, or 3) always take my wife with me? Right now, option 1 seems the least appealing.
I am reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World. And my not-well-planned and somewhat impromptu trip reminds me of her admonishment to embrace the “practice of getting lost.” When we allow ourselves to step off the familiar path, to venture out of familiar territory, to risk the unknown, we are more likely to encounter the holy. Not that those unfamiliar places are the only places where holy resides, but they are the places where our guards are down, and we see what the routines of our lives so often filter out.They are the places where we are the stranger, the vulnerable, where our illusions of control are exposed.
Shortly before Christmas, on a trip to the art store, Nancy discovered the Dream Board, a pale blank medium on which you “paint” with clear water. The brush stroke leaves a black mark that disappears in a few minutes as the water evaporates. Lately, I have incorporated the Dream Board into my morning contemplative routine. I make a squiggle on the board, sit back, and study it. Surprisingly often, the squiggle brings to mind an image that was not in my conscious intent. Mountains on the horizon. A running horse, tail streaming behind. A curled fetus. Other times, I set out to evoke an image in a few brush strokes. A sailboat. A bird in flight. A tree. These efforts are hindered by my lack of skill and the annoying tremor in my dominant hand. But even the ugly failures are interesting to observe. Disappearing images often morph into something else entirely.
It seems to me that my Dream Board experiences, and contemplative practice in general, are akin to Taylor’s “getting lost.” They take me out of my planned and scripted life, out of my ruts, out of my ego; they open me to the holy that I would otherwise not see.
I was never really lost on my recent trip. And I had no dramatic “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it!” experiences. I did, in my daylight return trip through the heart of South Carolina’s peach country, see mile after mile of peach orchard, trees already red-tipped in early January. And the magnificent Blue Ridge escarpment looming ahead. Not a bad way to start the new year.
So, maybe more travel, not less. With Nancy. We’ve been thinking about revisiting The Jerusalem Grill in Rome, Georgia—just a three-hour drive to the best shawarma we’ve experienced, with not a mile of Interstate. Or maybe Nashville, to try out full-sized vibraphones on a showroom floor—lots of waterfalls between here and there, if you stray from the beaten path.
It has been a busy summer. We are remodeling two bathrooms, gutting them down to the framing and working back out. Although the physical work is hired out, the disruption of daily living and the time involved in researching and selecting materials still have a huge impact on our capacity to carry on with normal activities. Two years after buying this place, we still don’t feel settled in.
The big event of our summer, however, was a trip to Ireland—two weeks with our church choir (and some groupies). We sang Choral Eucharist and Choral Evensong at St. Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast one weekend and at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin the next, plus a public performance at Bangor Abbey, our choirmaster’s home parish. As in all my musical undertakings, I feel I am the least talented and least experienced of the group. The music was difficult, and there was lots of it. So, telling about those experiences is much more fun than was the actual doing.
The debut performance of Handel’s “Messiah” occurred just a few dozen yards from Christ Church Cathedral, and its choir, plus that of nearby St. Patrick’s, comprised the original chorus. We sat in the stalls of that choir and sang for eucharist and evensong in that church! Our recessional passed under its great organ just as Emma, our organist, hit the lowest, most powerful notes of her postlude. Those vibrations stay with you long after the physical echos have died away!
To get to the bell ringers’ chamber in the belfry requires climbing a narrow spiral tower from the south transept, and traversing an outdoor catwalk along the base of the transept roof. In ancient times, we were told, the belfry was also the treasure vault. The narrow spiral approach, corkscrewing clockwise as you climb, was designed to put an attacking (right-handed) swordsman at a disadvantage. I never realized these places did duty as forts!
For all that, the most memorable parts of the trip were the more traditional tourist things. When asked about strongest impressions, favorite experiences, etc., I give some variant on “everything.” Was it the wild northern coast of County Antrim, or the crowded streets of Dublin with buskers on every corner? Or maybe the ancient stone ruins? The invariably lovely countryside? The food, the friendly people, the coffee? Ah, the coffee! And flowers everywhere!
Nearly everywhere you go along the Northern Ireland coast has a sign with a variant of “Game of Thrones, Season x, Episode y filmed here!” We were in and around Portrush a week before The Open. Astounding, the logistics of putting on a major golfing event in a fairly isolated location! Hundreds of acres of temporary structures, some 30 by 40 feet and two stories high! We stayed at the nearby Giant’s Causeway Hotel, a Fawlty Towers-looking structure set amidst the lushest meadows imaginable, edged by clifftops a hundred meters above the North Atlantic Ocean. The Causeway’s polygonal basalt columns are a marvel, but an after dinner, almost dusk walk along the clifftop meadows is the memory that feeds my soul.
We actually spent more time in the big cities. There, too, delights abound. St. George’s Market in Belfast, with its handcrafts and culinary temptations and Tennessee flags. (Nashville is a sister city.) A gourmet dinner on our “private” open-air balcony atop a department store. (Actually, that balcony would hold thirty diners, but all the other patrons that night preferred the smoking balcony.) Another dinner, a seafood mezza, at a Lebanese restaurant in Dublin. Extravagant floral displays in gardens and window boxes. Public art. Even rural roundabouts might have towering sculptures! And walking, walking, walking. One day, our phone app clocked nine miles of random “let’s see where this goes” meandering.
Typically, when Nancy and I travel, we are ready to go home by the third day. Not since our honeymoon have we had a two-week vacation. I am happy to say two weeks was not too long. Still, it’s nice to be home.
The weeds did not go on vacation during our absence, and we are in a fight to prevent the mulberry weed and stiltgrass from going to seed. But those gardening activities have to compete for our limited time and energy. Church, band, the remodeling project—all want a piece of us.
Three weeks after our return, we hosted the four grandkids and their parents. At the beginning of that three-week countdown, the downstairs room the kids were to sleep in had no ceiling and, in a few places, no subfloor in the still-under-construction bathroom above. The furniture from that room, plus construction tools and supplies filled the rest of our downstairs guest spaces. It would have been a busy three weeks even without the stiltgrass and band and other components of our everyday lives.
“No matter our vocation, we so often find ourselves living life as a form of triage.” (Michael Perry, Truck: A Love Story).
Amen! Testify! Even in retirement. Even without remodeling.
Our house is surrounded by trees—mature trees that not infrequently shed parts of themselves. Even the slightest of rain showers seems to bring down one or more sticks you’re grateful not to have been underneath when it fell. Once last year I found a thirty-foot long limb at the edge of our meadow—a seemingly healthy arm ripped from an eighty-foot tulip tree. Did I sleep through a windstorm? Did an otherwise benign shower generate a freak localized burst of turbulence just fifty yards from my bedroom window?
Three days ago, I found an even bigger widow-maker in the driveway back to our garage. I stepped off about forty feet of chestnut oak, nine inches in diameter at the butt. This one, at least, was dead wood—woodpeckers had been at it. It seems to have taken a tip-first dive, then toppled sideways down the embankment to land ten feet laterally from the plane of its fall.
The source tree was one of a cluster of three big chestnut oaks covered with English ivy, the removal of which had not yet risen to the top of our priority list. As the widow maker had damaged a rhododendron at the tree’s base, I climbed the bank to trim away the broken branches. While up there, I removed ivy from the trunks of the oaks, and Nancy resumed her long-interrupted task of clearing it from the forest floor. Triage.
Fortunately, that rhody is not a well behaved lawn shrub; it has gone native and formed the beginnings of a “laurel hell.” Loss of a few branches soon won’t make a noticeable gap in its overall form.
The ivy is bound for the landfill; can’t risk its taking root again. The widow maker and its rhody victim I cut up and hauled downslope. Half a ton of matter added to our brush pile.
Yes, our place generates lots of work. But pleasures also. From our deck, we daily watch the antics of the hummingbirds, the clouds, the windmills on Buffalo Mountain. From the deck, I noticed the snakeskin in the redbud. That eighteen- or twenty-inch juvenile had climbed twenty-five feet up the tree and slithered out of its skin on branch tips so small you’d think they would not support a goldfinch. Just in the last week we’ve seen our raptors at hood ornament height on prey-catching trajectories just in front of our moving cars: the barred owl across Nancy’s bow one night; the red-shouldered hawk across mine the next day.
For two glorious weeks in Ireland, we put the daily demands aside and walked new paths. Even now, back to “real life,” I am blessed that my daily triage involves mostly responsibilities willingly chosen.
Our interim rector recently used the following prayer:
Gracious Lord, we thank you for setting before us tasks which demand our best efforts and lead us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us. What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done; let it be. Let us look expectantly to a new day, new joys, and new possibilities. Let us leave the past behind and look towards the future that you hold for us.Help us to be thankful, joyful, and expectant for all you have done and will continue to do. In the name of the One who leads us forth. Amen.
Travelers on I-75 through central Florida will likely be familiar with the proclamation, “We Bare All” on dozens of billboards, advertising the strip joint at Micanopy. While I admit to some curiosity and titillation, that’s not the reason those words were running around in my thoughts. Bare all. Bear all.
I have been re-reading Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, by Kathleen Norris. Her piece on detachment has this quote:
One sixth century monk, Dorotheus of Gaza, describes detachment as “being free from [wanting] certain things to happen,” and remaining so trusting of God that “what is happening will be the thing you want and you will be at peace with all.”
Norris goes on to say, “This sort of detachment is neither passive nor remote but paradoxically is fully engaged with the world. It is not resignation, but a vigilance that allows a person to recognize that whatever comes is a gift from God.” Richard Rohr calls it “death transformed.” A bit of ego dies, and something better arises in its place. We accept what we cannot change, and in the letting go of the futile wish that circumstances were different, we find the gift that was waiting. Something like detachment is a part of every wisdom tradition: Christian, Buddhist, etc.
I think the reason “bare all, bear all” was in my thoughts is that I am slowly coming to admit there is something I need to let go: a desire that has haunted me, poisoned me, for a long time. I cannot fulfill that desire; I need to accept that fact and embrace what I do have. I am still far from any detachment on this issue—depressed by the coming death and not at all trusting in a subsequent re-birth. While I would like to say I “bear” it with detachment, I am currently “bearing” with self-pity and resentment.
In this frame of mind yesterday, I hit the mess that is Georgia highways. We were doing the Spring migration of Nancy’s snowbird parents, she driving the girls’ car and me driving the boys’. I had seen a single warning, fifty miles or so in advance, that the right lane was to be closed during the weekend at mile xx on I-475, the bypass around Macon. There seem to be two kinds of drivers regarding lane closures: suckers (e.g., me) who move over immediately, and __ (another s-word comes to mind) who try to push to the head of the line by ignoring the warnings and then expect suckers to let them in at the last minute. Having seen the warning 50 miles back, and being of the sucker tribe, when I suddenly hit the traffic slowdown, I moved to the left lane.
But there is another reasonable response to a sudden slowdown, especially an unexpected one. (And a single warning 50 miles in advance is totally inadequate.) That response, which I once had ingrained but had not had to practice recently, is to take the nearest exit and evaluate alternatives. Nancy, some distance behind me, had just enough time to duck for what turned out be the last exit in a six-mile backup. Nancy breezed around the backup, in which I would be trapped for nearly an hour and a half.
I judge the Georgia highway department in this instance to be either spectacularly incompetent or actively venal. They could have warned of large delays and urged finding an alternate route (there are at least two), but that might inconvenience the locals. Their neglect placed the entire burden on thousands and thousands of unsuspecting through-travelers. Adding insult to injury, this construction, scheduled for weekend hours, was totally unmanned when I passed at three on Saturday afternoon. The workers had quit for the day.
It got worse. Nancy, now an hour and a quarter ahead of me, hit more and more slowdowns, ones she could not drive around. Warning me of misery to come, she suggested I strike out across country in an effort to avoid the interstate. We have successfully enjoyed this kind of meandering before, me driving and she navigating and exploring online. But this time, the strategy failed. Atlanta is just too big. I headed toward Athens to get away from the multiple snafus of the big city, then north to Gainesville, then through the Appalachian foothills into Tennessee. But every resident of Georgia chose this afternoon to take a leisurely drive, instead of staying home and watching whatever sport is currently in season. My father-in-law helped navigate and stayed in good humor, but the outcome was that we lost another hour and a quarter. We pulled into Oak Ridge two and a half hours after Nancy and her mother. What should have been an eleven and a half hour drive took me fifteen and a half hours.
Where does “bares all” comes into the picture? If you can think of a negative trait, I probably exhibited it yesterday afternoon. My very first reaction, when Nancy phoned to say she had gotten around the first backup, was anger and envy. As the day wore on, I added profanity, whining, despair. I tried, I really did, to take a more detached view of my predicament. I practiced my mindful breathing routines. I noted the beauty of the foothills and lakes. I thought of those not just inconvenienced for a few hours, but in seriously desperate straits: journalists and dissidents jailed and brutalized by despots, refugees from war and rampant civil disorder huddled at the borders of unwelcoming countries, my own among them. But truly, I was not the poster boy for detachment. Hours later, I am still wound up, still stewing.
And did you catch how I tried to distance myself from my baser self in the title? Not “I Bare All” but “Travel Bares All.” It wasn’t me; the devil made me do it.
As we kept in touch by phone during the long ordeal, Nancy kept saying, “You have to blog about this.” I suspect she had in mind my taking a humorous slant on the afternoon. In time, I suppose I will be able to do that. But for now, what stands out for me is embarrassment at what the afternoon revealed about me and how hard it is to let go what is old and not working and to embrace what is yet to be revealed.
One recent morning, our new neighbor discovered a fallen tree across her driveway. Blocked in; husband out of town; couldn’t get their chainsaw started; did we know any tree guys? Well, yeah, but not cheap, and not likely to be quick about it.
I went out to take a look. The sweet smell of red oak, freshly broken open; about 16 inches in diameter where it crossed the driveway. Hmm. I bet we can handle this.
I have three large log-cutting saws mounted on the wall of our living room. Two are ancient—six-foot two-person cross cut saws, one from each of my grandfathers. The paternal one is covered with enough rust scale to render it useless as a tool, but the maternal one is in good shape except for the dry-rotted handles. It has been used in this century; that’s when one weakened handle broke. Someday, I will make new ones.
The third saw I bought new, 40-some years ago. It’s about three feet long, variously called a one-person cross-cut or a bucking saw. Straight from the factory, it was a disaster—teeth filed to random lengths and with no “set.” I had to re-file all the teeth and, lacking a saw set for such large teeth, set them with a small hammer. It took me years of off-and-on effort to get it working reasonably well. That’s the tool I took off the wall.
The saw did me proud. In fact, I cannot remember a time that it cut better. We moved the secondary handle into two-person mode, and with the neighbor on one end and me on the other, we made short work of that oak.
Later that same morning, Nancy and I were removing leaves from our cul de sac. Nancy, with “her” leaf blower, would push them up into a dense pile. Then I would use a leaf rake to move the pile to the curb. Nancy was amused that I preferred the leaf rake, and mentioned Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel (old vs. new technology). I countered with John Henry against the steam drill (man vs. machine).
It’s not nearly the same, of course. Mike Mulligan and John Henry, and the Luddites before them, were concerned about job security. While I have sometimes jumped onto a self-righteous soapbox, in truth my issues are merely personal preference.
I don’t object to modern power tools. I have written before about our electrically-powered “Goat.” Additionally, we own two leaf blowers, a string trimmer, and a lawn mower—all cordless electrics with 21st-century battery and control technology. But there are times when a simpler tool works better for me. Take the task of moving leaves.
I like my blower. (We have “his” and “hers;” hers is a later purchase, more powerful and quieter than mine.) They are great for moving a light density of leaves into piles or windrows. But when the pile gets large, a stream of air seems an inefficient way to make progress. That’s when I prefer a leaf rake and a tarp.
Nancy keeps reminding me how her physiology is different than mine—the mechanics of using the leaf rake don’t come easily to her. (This from the woman who can sit or crouch for hours at a time pounding paver bricks level with a rubber mallet. For me, ten minutes of that would have my back in torment. Different physiology.) If I had been elsewhere that morning, she would have finished the job just fine with her blower. She might have needed to draw on her backup battery, but that’s what it’s for.
What I most object to in fall leaf cleanup is the second hand noise of others doing the job with an ear-splitting gasoline-powered blower. I recently saw a cartoon in which a group of lab-coated types were staring at a whiteboard covered with formulas and diagrams. At the top of the board was the project goal: Design a quiet leaf blower. And one scientist was saying to the rest that they should give up and move on to something feasible, such as putting man on Mars. As I said earlier, we own two quiet blowers, so I know it is possible to move air with force and little noise—IF you are not wedded to gasoline engines.
We have discussed getting a chain saw. Maybe one is in our future, but so far, I have resisted. Partly, I am not convinced that our need is great enough to justify the expense because most of what I cut can be easily done with a pruning saw. Then there is the safely angle. A chainsaw is a dangerous tool at best. On our steep terrain, with me at an age when balance begins to decline, is it worth the risk? If I ever succumb to the lure of a chainsaw, it will almost certainly be a cordless electric. Noise is only part of my aversion to gasoline engines; their care and feeding is at least as big a drawback. My electric tools always start and never leave oily smells on my skin and clothing.
I recently encountered a website devoted to use of the scythe for haying and maintaining farm pastures. I once owned a scythe, sold it, regretted that decision, bought another. For some uses, I have not found a better tool. The website reinforced for me how little I know about using and, most especially, sharpening a scythe. I had never heard of peening one. I am not even sure that my cheap blade, stamped, not forged, is capable of being peened. I have had my scythe out a few times since we moved here, unsuccessfully tackling the mess in my meadow. Now I am inspired to keep trying. One thing’s for certain—I am not buying a gasoline-powered mowing monster for that meadow. We will find another way.
I have three antique wooden bodied woodworking planes, also displayed in our living room with the saws. One is missing its handle; one is structurally compromised; all are fussy to use, lacking the adjusting screws and levers of your basic metal-bodied Stanley from 150 years ago. I am not masochist enough to try to use them for real work, yet proud to say I have been able to coax a few good shavings from each. And, yes, there are web pages devoted to using wood-bodied planes, or even making your own. Maybe, someday.
Two closing thoughts: First, the author of the scything website mentioned that, for him, swinging a scythe across his meadow was a form of meditation. I get that. I have come as close to a meditative state while using hand tools as I ever did while practicing centering prayer. (Aside: This week’s Economist has an obituary on Fr. Thomas Keating, the father of centering prayer.)
Second, to repeat, I maintain and use hand tools because I enjoy them. There is a special pleasure in felling a dead tree with my grandfather’s crosscut saw, or filing and setting the teeth on my bucking saw. Some fish. Some travel. Some read or knit or train bonsai. A former work colleague studied string theory for fun. No John Henry am I, no Paul Bunyan. Just a dilettante having fun.
“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.
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.
Was it Luther? Somewhere I read something to the effect that he prayed for an hour each day, except on days he was especially busy—then he prayed for two hours. In that vein, perhaps I can justify taking some time to write.
My life is chaos. It is largely my own fault, and nothing that deserves your great sympathy. My desk is chaos, because of my own habits of procrastination and sloth. My shop is chaos, because (in addition to the aforementioned procrastination and sloth) in the midst of my latest project, my table saw’s blade raising and lowering mechanism failed, and I now have saw parts and tools layered over that project on the workbench and underfoot all over the floor. Our house is chaos because in selling the houses of my mother and Nancy’s parents, we have ended up with more stuff than anyone could possibly use. My “To Do” list is chaos because I have made commitments that I should have not made.
On second thought, as I look at the list, I do not regret any of the voluntary commitments. It is, for the most part, an exciting and life-affirming list. The To-Do’s I dread are involuntary, chief among them being the annual income tax flagellation.
The table saw has been a major setback. After scanning the on-line forums and evaluating my choices, I opted for an epoxy called J-B Weld. I knew that if I screwed up, there’d be hell to pay, but I was careful and as thorough as I knew to be. After applying the epoxy, I tested that the parts that needed to slide against each other would still slide, then laid everything aside for the epoxy to cure overnight. Alas! This morning when I tried to re-assemble, I couldn’t even jam the parts together, much less expect them to slide freely. Does J-B Weld expand on curing? Everything looks just as I had left it last evening, but I have lost a critical few thousandths of an inch in clearance. I will have to remove that from the polished aluminum casting with an abrasive. More delay in getting back to my projects. More tasks I have never done before and must learn on the fly. More opportunity to screw up and ruin what was a pretty good saw.
I need an attitude adjustment. Writing helps. Sitting here helps—sitting in a comfortable chair, watching my dog watching the life just outside our dining room window. Earlier this morning, that life included a flock of goldfinches splashing in the pond. Two days ago, the pond hosted a frenzied flock of robins (and a lone mourning dove) taking a post-winter bath. Bluebirds are nesting in the bluebird house. The upland chorus frogs are looking for love again—they’ve been sounding off for the past two nights. Spring is coming.
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.
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!
For a variety of reasons, I have an uncommonly high stack of books and magazines waiting to be read. All recent acquisitions, all personal choices I look forward to savoring. And it’s the perfect time of year to spend days in a good book. Weather is iffy, garden is sleeping, and holidays are for kicking back.
What timing, then, to be assigned a week of no reading! No books, no magazines, no morning paper. No NPR. No books on tape or listening to the news.
“If you feel stuck in your life or in your art, few jump starts are more effective than a week of reading deprivation.” So says Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way. I had been following her program for a few weeks, and came onto this assignment just as Christmas preparation was settling down enough for me to tackle my book pile.
Why reading deprivation? “The nasty bottom line is this: sooner or later, if you are not reading, you will run out of work and be forced to play.” Or, I would add, you will run out of excuses not to write and be forced to “show up at the page.” Play, dream, refill the creative well from which you draw. And then show up at the page, or the canvas, or the forge.
Reading deprivation is a form of fasting. I recall that Lauren Winner (Girl Meets God) describes a reading fast assigned to her one Lent. Six weeks is a long time; surely I can do a week.
On Sunday, Deacon John came down from the pulpit during his sermon on gratitude and wandered the aisle to give parishioners the opportunity to express their gratitudes. Grandchildren, children, spouses, the church community or particular members of it. As I listened to, and seconded, these and others, I was trying to articulate another thought. Only later did I get the words in place. One of the post-eucharistic prayers has the clause, “send us out to do the work you have given us to do.” I am grateful for that work, in all its many forms.
I will not try to explain the “how” of The Artist’s Way (TAW). I must try, however, to explain the “why.” Because if you go to the website, you will come away with the mistaken impression that TAW is another self-help program—a formula for pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps of will and determination. But if you read the book carefully, you will see that the program and its disciplines are founded not on will but on submission; on a belief that creativity is an ongoing act by the Creator, and that we are, once the blocks are cleared away, participants in this creative process. The disciplines—morning pages and artist dates and reading deprivation—like any spiritual disciplines, help to place us in the way of grace so that we can recognize and respond to it. They open us up so that we become channels for God’s creativity to flow through us.
And with that understanding of creativity, we see that it is not limited to “the creative arts.” This creative energy flows through all “the work you have given us to do.” Through my gardening and singing and child care. Through playing with my grandchildren, selecting Christmas gifts for my children, caring for an elderly parent. Through attending to the needs of my family and myself. Through housework and the work of being in relationship. Through improving this website and writing this blog.
So, how was my week of reading deprivation? I am happy to report that I only cheated a tiny bit; I took a few brief internet research excursions and glanced at a few headlines, but left my reading pile untouched and my news feeds unread. I did play; discovering some lovely music by local singer-songwriter, Jennifer Niceley. And I did “show up at the page” more often. One prayer in the book goes, Great Creator, I will take care of the quantity, you take care of the quality.