The funniest story I have heard about covid-19 hoarding came from my son in Oregon. He was at a gasoline station when someone pulled up in a homemade go-cart and asked for one-half gallon of gas. Any more would have just leaked out through the rust holes higher in the tank.
I don’t know about you, but I find myself whipsawed in my reactions to the pandemic. So far for me, it has been more like a vacation than a hardship. My vacation started back in that distant time (three weeks ago) when covid-19 was mostly a problem for other places. I had minor surgery and was forced to be inactive for several days. So I read. Books. A lot of them. Some new, others pulled from my bookshelf to be enjoyed for a second or third time. My recovery coincided with the local onset of social distancing. Normally at this time of year, I would be juggling gardening and other projects between my home and church, and spending lots of time on the two bands that we belong to. With the bands shut down and normal church activities curtailed, I just stay home. Work outside or in the shop for awhile, practice the sonata I am trying to learn, then settle in my recliner for more reading. A vacation.
Sure, there have been minor quandaries. Is it okay to make a quick stop at Home Depot on my way home from physical therapy? Should I quit physical therapy? (They are shutting down, so my last two appointments will be remote.) When the contractor I have been trying to get for a month finally says he can look at the job, do I turn him away?
I will admit to one or two moments of panic when reading about what could happen and imagining myself as one of those who needs a ventilator when none are available. In truth, however, I have barely been inconvenienced.
One can find—in the media, in the commentariat, among acquaintances—views on where we are heading that range from Pollyanna to Armageddon, from fears of social breakdown to signs of empathy and solidarity with the afflicted, from the fatalistic “I will die” to jokes about hoarding toilet paper when the symptoms are respiratory.
Nancy and I were having a “best of times, worst of times” discussion recently. Relative to most of humanity, past and present, we were born into place, time, and circumstances of prosperity, safety, freedom, and privilege. Furthermore, my worldview held that, over time, these blessings of prosperity, safety, freedom, and privilege would spread to larger segments of humanity. Observing 1) the accelerating pace of fallout from climate change, 2) worldwide political tendencies toward the nastier forms of nationalism and tribalism, and 3) our revealed vulnerabilities to this pandemic, that worldview and our blessings seem increasingly fragile.
As a former spiritual director regularly asked me, where is God in this? I reject the simplistic and naive answers to that question: That God is absent or non-existent; that God is vindictively punishing us for some infraction; that God is testing our faith, and we need not take the precautions, such as hand washing and social distancing, prescribedby mammon (updated versions of snake handling and the prosperity gospel). I do not believe God has willed this disease on anyone, but I do believe it has something to teach me.
Exactly what, I do not yet know. But I see some hints in the recent daily meditations of Richard Rohr. I won’t try to summarize, because I am still digesting. If you are interested, I suggest going directly to those meditations, March 21 through the present. Contemplate what the psalms of lamentation (March 21) have to tell us. Explore Barbara Brown Taylor’s word, “endarkenment” (March 26). (That one has prompted me to re-read her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark.)
It is, amid many rainy days and a frightening pandemic, an intensely lovely spring. I am trying to pay attention to both.
As I wrote the date in my journal, I appended, Feast of Stephen. That set me thinking about how far removed contemporary culture (myself included) is from the time when saints’ feast days were equated with calendar dates in ordinary vernacular. History and/or Shakespeare buffs will know that the Battle of Agincourt was fought on St. Crispin’s Day. But what time of year is that? The rabble in the Globe Theater knew.
I am reading a book about the northern border of the U.S., which begins with a history of sixteenth century French exploration of North America. That led me to read up on the preceding forty years of religious wars in France, where I found a reference to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. St. Bartholomew’s Day? When is that? Sixteenth century Frenchmen knew.
St. Swithun’s Day? Yes, he did exist, and there is a reason for the rhyme tying his feast day with a weather forecast. No, I am not going to tell you. Have your own fun looking it up. I will only divulge that the Feast of Stephen falls on December 26, which is also The Second Day of Christmas.
Of course, we have our own (almost) contemporary saint’s day massacre (St. Valentine’s). But aside from Valentine, and of course, St. Nick, what saint’s days take your mind immediately to a calendar date? St. Stephen is my limit.
Looking out on this Feast of Stephen, I did not see snow, deep and crisp and even. I did see a lake of fog in the valley below. That’s been a feature of the last few days. Below is a series of photos taken on Christmas Eve as day broke—the Cumberland Mountains stark against a clear sky with a lake of fog in the valley below. (Photos begin at 7:25 am and end at 8:29.)
It is too cold this time of year to do my journaling out on the deck, so that series of photos represents jumping up from my writing every few minutes to walk out onto the deck and capture the sight. I claim my journaling as my current contemplative practice. But sometimes I wonder. My entries often seem little more than making “to do” lists and “Dear Diary” reporting, more narcissism than contemplation. The saving grace is that the exercise forces me to pay attention, to be present.
We bought this place in 2017 and spent the entire fall of that year on the initial round of renovations before moving in; 2018 was a year of trying to settle in and planning how to accomplish the other improvements we thought were needed; and 2019 has been the year of the contractor. Major sweeping changes to two bathrooms, removal of some scary trees overhanging the house and garage, reshaping the drainage around the uphill side of the house, construction of safer and more convenient exterior access to our downstairs. Enough! Our resolution for 2020 is “No more contractors!”
Both the tree removal and the drainage improvements sent Bobcats up and down the old logging road that is our principal access to our meadow. Now that steep pathway is a muddy mess, likely to stay that way well into spring. I am especially anxious to put a deep organic cover over the roots of a huge chestnut oak, to help it recover from the compaction of all the unaccustomed traffic. If it fell, it would likely take with it the whole 200-foot long row of big trees bordering the west edge of the meadow. I have a truckload of leaves at the top, and a similar pile of wood chips at the bottom. But the muddy steep slope is too much for The Goat. So I reverted to more primitive technology—raking the leaves onto an old bedsheet and lugging it on my back like Santa’s toy sack. Later I hope to do the same with the wood chips, although that will be an uphill slog.
2019 ends—and 2020 will begin—with a big push to get our studio, shop, and garage sorted for future creative endeavors. Construction leftovers and an excess of “that might be useful for shelving (or storage or…” have all these spaces overcrowded to the point of gridlock. We have goals:
Nancy’s studio table art-ready, not cluttered with sheet music and bins of miscellania to be sorted
My shop cleared of unusable wood scraps, with dreamed-of work stations functioning
The music end of the studio free of intruding leftovers so that we can walk in, pick up mallets, and play.
These last few days of clear skies and warm temperatures have me wanting to play in the woods. There is easily a couple of weeks of tempting tasks calling me out there, and I will heed some of the calls. But cold and wet days will return, and we will continue to tackle the studio and shop. It looks to be a very good year.
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.
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.
“Nothing’s free anymore, unless you’re a liberal!”
We had each somehow stumbled into one of those wrong-way elevator trips and, as it finally reversed, I had made some comment about getting a free ride.
His reply stunned me and has haunted me for weeks. The words on paper are stark enough. In the flesh, their impact was jarring. He and I were alone on the elevator, and nothing in our silent half minute together before his statement was remotely political. Yet the words as delivered, complete with voice tone and body language, carried true vitriol.
I have spent time and energy parsing the words. Does he mean that liberals act as if some things are free, or is he saying that liberals indeed receive freebies from which non-liberals are excluded? Does “anymore” imply that once upon a time, something was free but is no longer?
I have explored—briefly—the definitions and histories of the various manifestations of the liberal tradition, from the seventeenth century until today. It’s an exercise that leaves my head spinning and reminds me why I never enjoyed philosophy.
These are, I recognize, attempts to distance myself from the visceral reality of the encounter. The anger. His. And mine.
He did not hurl the insult at me personally. Maybe he thought I was a fellow … (whatever label he would give himself; “conservative” seems too mild). But I’ll accept the “liberal” label, even wear it proudly. That’s largely my own visceral and vitriolic reaction—my caricature of “conservative” against his caricature of “liberal.” If he and I were able to carry on a civil conversation, would both our positions be more nuanced? Would we find some common ground? I’ll never know.
I wear other labels, and most are imperfect. “Writer,” for instance. Over the past several decades, I have both embraced and rejected that label. Embraced because I’d like it to be true; distanced when I doubted deserving the honor. By some definitions, a writer is one who writes, indeed one who cannot not write. Confession: the lengthy gaps between posts on this blog are not filled by literary output in any other forum. So, between posts, am I no longer a writer? I don’t lose my God-given talent for stringing words together during those dry spells. But I often wonder whether I have anything to say with those strings of words. It’s different from “writer’s block.” I’m not a frustrated writer when not writing. More often, I’m wearing another label.
“Lazy” might sometimes apply, but let’s stick with nouns. Labels I would happily claim include “gardener,” “woodworker,” “do-it-yourselfer.” In my working career, I claimed “economist” and “engineer.” In my younger days, “backpacker.” I also claim “journal-er” (i.e., one who journals) and “contemplative.”
“Musician” is a new label for me, and one with fewer bona fides. Despite two painful years of childhood piano lessons and some choral singing in my younger adulthood, only within the past few years have considered myself a musician, specifically “singer.”
Even more recent is my halting attempt to become an “instrumentalist,” a “percussionist.” By virtue of Nancy’s strong-arming (and her believing in me), I am a not-totally-deadweight member of one of her bands, capable of banging out a regular two-or-four-beats-per-measure rhythm on a bass drum and occasionally bringing in a cymbal crash or triangle note at the right time. Keeping up with where we are in the score or reading a more complicated rhythm or quickly switching from drum to woodblock to cowbell—well, let’s just say I have a lot to learn.
What I notice as I write this piece is that the labels I embrace are vocational/avocational. They describe me, yet allow me to be multidimensional, to be more than the label. The ones I’d rather not claim are tribal. Political labels—conservative, liberal—at least as used in public discourse, are tribal. They separate my tribe (the good guys) from your tribe (the bad guys). How else to hear the scorn in my elevator companion’s “liberal” (likewise the “conservative” I silently voiced back at him). It’s as if we’d shouted “I’m a Vol and you’re a Gator,” only with more acid, if that’s possible.
Unfortunately, labels of nationality, regionality, ethnicity, and religion, as with politics, are mostly used in the tribal sense, to separate us from the other. It is true that I am an American and a Christian. Yet when I hear people claim those labels (or their own tribal equivalent), I frequently hear exclusion. I cringe; I don’t want to be in that kind of tribe.
Let me take this idea of labels in another direction.
For the past couple weeks, I have frequently found Nancy in her studio, painting. “That don’t mean a thing to you, but it does to me.” [See footnote] I know how much Nancy has longed to get back to her art, both to have the space and time, and to have the inspiration. So, seeing her at work/play, with paint-stained fingers, happily creating again, is a source of joy for me, too.
And, as I watch her work, I see a coming back to true self. That idea, found in various literature—on vocation, on creativity, on spirituality—asserts that there is in each of us a wholeness that we lose sight of and must re-discover. (For an introduction to one thread of this literature, see Richard Rohr’s meditation for July 31.) Is that not what we mean by vocation/avocation? What is it that brings us deep joy? Acting out of our truest, deepest, God-given nature.
Any name that we give to this deepest, truest self will be inadequate. Nancy is an artist, a painter. But that is not the entirety of her being, and the labels do not attempt to confine her to that box. So that’s the distinction I wish to make. Some labels build up, invoke joy, leave open; others tear down, invoke scorn, enclose. Or, in the words of a song I once heard, Some things do and some things don’t lead us to higher ground. May the labels you attach to yourself and those you bestow on your neighbor lead you both to higher ground.
Footnote: The best road trips are those on which we allow for interesting side trips. So we unabashedly move off-topic here to enjoy some gems of Americana music. The line, “That don’t mean a thing to you, but it does to me,” perfectly conveyed what I wanted to say there. And it took me on a side trip to the source, Lori McKenna’s song, “Lorraine.” Take that trip with me. You can find it on YouTube, and probably many other sources. Likewise, I recommend a trip to Gretchen Peters’ website and a listen to her rendition of Stephanie Davis’ song, “Wolves.” (Not Selena Gomez’ totally different song with the same title!) “Wolves” popped into my head while musing on the exchange with my elevator companion, which, fairly or not, led to musing on the plight of refugees. Both songs are powerful. Both artists are superb talents. I invite you to extend your side trip and explore more of their music. Practitioners of theological reflection will find much to reflect on. Some of my McKenna favorites include “You Get A Love Song,” “If He Tried,” “All I Ever Do,” “If You Ask,” “One Man.” Favorites by Peters include “Everything Falls Away,” “Five Minutes,” “Little World,” “Jubilee,” “The Cure for the Pain,” “Guadalupe.”
“How are you today?” It’s my chiropractor’s usual opening line.
“OK, ’til half an hour ago,” I reply, “then my back said, ‘We’re done!’”
I had been facing uphill on a 45 degree slope, bent over, digging a trench for a drain line.
I have been here often enough to know the signs. When my erectors seem on the edge of spasm, I heed the warnings. I had hurriedly showered and driven to his office before he closed for lunch. With a quick adjustment, and the admonition to put ice on my back when I got home, I was in and out in a few minutes. (It is a patient-friendly business model—monthly fee, unlimited visits, no appointments, no insurance, no up-sell. I hope it continues to work for him. It certainly does for us. But that’s not what this post is about.)
Later, at home, as I gather my lumbar support cushion and my ice pack, I pick up a book from the night stand. Soul Gardening (subtitled Cultivating the Good Life, by Terry Hershey) is one of several currently at my bedside, to be sampled and savored a few bites at a time while winding down at the end of the day. The book mark is at the beginning of the section, “Winter.” Winter soul gardening, it seems, is about Sabbath. Just as we need, and are lovingly commanded to take, regular rest, our gardens too need that seasonal rest. They may be unproductive—even ugly—in winter, but in that mess lie the seeds of rebirth that spring will bring forth. My back, it seems, needs Sabbath.
The temperature is in the nineties, yet my deck is shaded after midday and there is a slight breeze. I sit, read, watch the mountains and our meadow, nap. Lately, I have been doing my morning journaling out here. Soul gardening.
We have come through an extended time in which we were driven by agendas that left little time for rest. Selling parental houses, remodeling and moving into this one, getting through the wedding of our youngest. We have recently reached a point where we talk of the luxury of choice. Yes, we have a list of projects in and around our new home that will take years, at least. Yes, we have other obligations—including church and musical organizations. But, as we tried to explain to our son and daughter-in-law when they worried that we were working too hard, much of what is on our To-Do lists is play. Others golf or fish or travel. We play in yard and shop and studio. These days, when we wake in the morning and consider how to spend the day, we are making happy choices from a large and luscious menu.
I am reminded of those discussions in the business literature of my mid-career days, warning of the trap of urgency. All of us fall into that trap, spending our time and energy on tasks that are presented as urgent, to the detriment of those that in our hearts we know to be more important. Perhaps it is the wisdom of age; perhaps the luxury of retirement; possibly just that, at my age, society no longer views me fit for the urgent tasks. Whatever the reason, my life is less driven by urgency and more by importance, than at any time in my past.
So I am not much put out by the forced leisure. That trench will get done, or not. Maybe my son will do it. With care, my back will recover in a day or so, and I will—carefully— resume my digging and hauling and mulching. With a healthy dose of reading and writing and watching for hawks from my deck chair.
“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.
Why? Why, when I do not feel old (69 is middle-aged, right?), why, then, was our hearing aids the topic of conversation among the guys I cooked breakfast with Sunday morning?
Age and aging has been on my mind. Nancy and I have been house-hunting. Our current house is a special place— light and airy and connected to nature. I have written about Nancy’s gardens and the frog pond just outside our picture window. (See the Tag Cloud in the right hand column of our web page.) As I write, I am watching hummingbirds and goldfinches in a front yard shaded by a magnificent black cherry and a somewhat lesser black gum. Our small patch of suburbia is a riot of late summer bloom—coreopsis and zinnia and Black-eyed Susan and coneflower and crape myrtle and four-o’clocks and hydrangea. Our “back yard” is actually “The Woods,” a small forest of Appalachian cove hardwoods.
But—and it is a major “but”—we have been struggling for some time with how to make Nancy’s painting studio and my workshop more functional. So far, all our ideas involve major contortions that only take us part way towards a solution. So, we thought we should look around.
Someone asked if we were downsizing. “At our age,” that would make sense. We are certainly factoring into our decision-making the capability of living on one level (not an option in our current tri-level), and we are actively shedding possessions. But downsizing the inhabitable number of square feet is not a primary concern. A larger studio and shop might actually result in upsizing.
During all this deliberation, I have kept coming back to the question, does this make sense? And the undercurrent of the question is its continuation—does this make sense “at our age?” [Re “our age,” I am, as I said, 69. Nancy is … younger.]
OnBeing recently broadcast Krista Tippett’s interview with Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson and author of Composing a Life and the more recent Composing a Further Life: the Age of Active Wisdom. Two ideas I heard in the interview resonate with these deliberations. First, “at our age,” many of us can still look forward to an extended period of active life. Second, Bateson describes those who compose their lives as participant-observers—observing but at the same time fully present.
The term, participant-observer, strikes a chord with both of us. Much of Nancy’s graduate studies involved participatory action research, combining intentionality and reflection. For me, he term calls up Richard Rohr’s call to action and contemplation, emphasis on the “and.” It reminds me, too, that in walking a labyrinth, we go inward, but then we come out again. To be deeply observant and open while at the same time actively engaged—that is how I hope to live out my life. And that brings me back to our shop and studio. To honor the deep joy we feel when gardening or painting or crafting or building—to honor that joy by paying it due attention and by spending ourselves in its service—makes sense, even at our age.
I am reminded of a passage I recently read in Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams.
(Aside: Kingsolver is one of my three favorite novelists; the other two are Ann Patchett and Isabel Allende. I have concluded that I could never be a book critic, because I cannot tell you why I respond powerfully to a given passage. But my experience on re-reading Animal Dreams—actually a common experience with any book I like—brings to mind a road trip we once took. We were driving US 26 east through the Wind River Range in Wyoming. On rounding a curve and catching a view of cliffs ahead, an involuntary, Oh!, rose from my diaphragm. But even as the Oh! was forming, the curve continued, exposing more of the spectacular view, and more, and more. And my Oh! came out as a long undulating O…o…o…oh! So with this book.)
In the book, Hallie, volunteering in Nicaragua as an agricultural pest consultant during that country’s civil war, admonishes Codi, her sister back in the States, to not put her (Hallie) on a pedestal, and to let go her (Codi’s) fear of loving and losing. “Wars and elections are both too big and too small to matter in the long run. The daily work—that goes on, it adds up. … I can’t tell you how good it feels. I wish you knew. … I wish you knew how to squander yourself.”
Remember parable of the man who built more barns to store his abundant harvest? At our age, at any age, to hoard may be a greater sin than to spend, even squander, the gifts we are given.
Update. We found a house we like, with lots of potential for shop and studio and gardening and observing the natural world. Nancy will miss her frog pond, and the topography of new place will make creating another so close to the viewing window a challenge. But there is potential for a wetland in the distanceanda vegetable garden.
Sure, it’s a risk. But later in the week, from an essay by Natalie Goldberg (“A Student Again,” in The Great Spring), I read, “I don’t want to die. … But death will find me … Then this single thought: Give everything while you can.”
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.
I was in my shop the other day, sorting through screwdrivers and drill bits, when Canadian singer-songwriter, Fred Eaglesmith, came to mind. In one of his opening monologs, he describes a bored man, home alone while the rest of the family is out, who resorts to visiting his shop to do a “finishing nail inventory [and] check out the three-quarter inch screws, …”
I am not abandoned or bored. Rather, a combination of desperation, motivation, and inspiration drove me to an afternoon sorting drill bits.
For a long while, I must confess, I have been in a state of paralysis about the overcrowded and disorganized state of my shop, not knowing where to begin, and thus, doing nothing. Two breakthroughs have enabled me to start tackling the problem. First, Nancy helped me realize that clustering some powered tools in the center, in and around a multi-use table I will build, rather than spreading them around the perimeter, would make better use of my space. That gave me a new direction for imagining a workable layout.
Second, I sold my radial arm saw and have not yet brought its replacement miter saw into the shop. Remember those puzzles with eight sliding tiles arranged in a 3 by 3 pattern with one empty space? To arrange the tiles in order requires many successive moves; an adjacent tile is slid into the empty space, opening another empty space and another opportunity to move a tile.Now imagine that puzzle with all spaces filled. Gridlock. The empty space means opportunity. My shop with the radial arm saw was like a faulty puzzle with no empty spaces; without that saw, I have opportunity.
Having begun to address the overcrowding, I face the bigger problem of disorganization. Why do I have four #2 Phillips screwdrivers within arms’ reach of my workbench (not to mention a couple of #1s and three identical #00s), but frequently have to walk across the shop and behind my table saw to get a chisel or a hammer? Why do I have two nearly complete and rarely used sets of drill bits for a quarter-inch-hex-drive cluttering a toolbox in addition to the two sets I use—one at my workbench and the other in my traveling drill-driver bag? As I rearrange the large pieces, I have the chance to correct some of my sloppy placement of the smaller items.
As if to reinforce my newfound resolve to be deliberate about where I store my tools, a few days ago, I happened onto The Toolbox Book: A Craftsmans’ Guide to Tool Chests, Cabinets and Storage Systems, by Jim Tolpin. Filled with photos of beautifully-crafted wooden cases that woodworkers designed built to protect and organize the tools of their livelihoods, it inspires me to do more than bang a few nails into the wall when I re-organize my shop. My tools, too, deserve better. A place for everything and everything in its place.
Hence, the screwdriver and drill bit inventory. I am assessing just which tools I reach for most often and then designing a layout which places them in arms’ reach of my new workbench location. Redundant screwdrivers, drill bits, wrenches, and odd parts long separated from their original purpose are being sent to what Nancy calls “purgatory.” (Think both soft “g” and hard “g”—“purge” and “not-quite-hell.”) Some will go immediately to my sons who are building their own tool collections. Others will remain in “purgatory” for a while until I can assess whether I miss them, then be consigned to alternative second lives or trash/recycling.
I took a side trip on the way home from visiting my mother. My mission—deliver some vintage Macintosh computers to a collector who is buying them from my father-in-law. While I was enroute, Nancy called me with the news that The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was playing tonight at the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin, NC, very near my destination. I’m stunned—a beautiful 1500-seat venue in Franklin, NC! Stunned—the Dirt Band in Franklin, NC! Stunned—the Band is 50 years old this year and still together!
The Performing Arts Center turns out to be a one-stop-shop for me. I park in the lot two hours before showtime, buy my ticket, eat at an adjacent restaurant, book a room at an adjacent hotel, and still have an hour to kill. I pass up the $25 “50 Years of Dirt” t-shirt.
It’s a full house. Almost all of us looking … well, looking 50 years older. We are treated to two non-stop hours of excellent showmanship.
My mother is in a nursing home, and we sold her house early last year. Later in the year, my in-laws decided to give up their large house and move to an apartment. So I have witnessed serious downsizing up close. Beside those experiences, purging my shop is nothing. I am letting go of a few extra tools and wood scraps; our parents are letting go, not only of stuff collected over a lifetime, but also activities that once, in part, defined them.
Nancy took on the task of bringing order to her parents’ new apartment. If my shop was a gridlocked 3 by 3 puzzle, that apartment, once the movers had done their work, was a gridlocked 33 by 33. To create the one empty space and begin to make progress, Nancy filled her mini-van and our spare room. Then she and her friend, Cathy, worked magic. Slowly, slowly. Yet another source of inspiration.
I have just begun my shop makeover, and I expect it to take a while. For one thing, I am still visualizing and will take it in stages. Also, I continue to use it during the makeover. I am in the middle of the first of two major projects I had confidently promised “before Christmas.” (Well, I did not specify a year!) This one involves curves, lots of curves. (See my earlier post, Not Afraid of Curves.) Six identical Trinity knots or triquetrae. (The singular is triquetra.) The project has included my first experience with a scroll saw, more use of a router than I have done in the previous decade, and painful re-learning of many pitfalls along the way. It has been two weeks of false starts, self-doubt, re-grouping and starting over.
The second of the promised-before-Christmas projects is the re-build of the frame for Nancy’s xylophone. She continues to haul it to practices and concerts, and the existing frame is shaky. I cannot put this off much longer. And then there is the new fixture I have to build that will make the re-configured shop work—a combination outfeed table and miter saw base and (maybe) router table with built-in power wiring and dust control ducting. Both projects need much conceptual work and detailed planning before I begin to cut wood.
Finally, there are the “honey-do’s.” Would you cut this shelf? Drill a hole here? Fix this lamp? It could be a long time before I get to that finishing nail inventory. But I’ll not be bored.