I had an early morning appointment at the dealership as the front passenger window in Nancy’s van was misbehaving. Settling in with passable coffee, I had written my morning pages and was working on the design of a miter saw station for my new shop when the service tech approached with the news. Nancy’s window had “lost its memory.”
“It happens to us all sooner or later,” I replied, getting a slightly less business-like smile in return.
My mind reeled off in several directions: How does one test a window for memory loss? (“What year is this?” “Who is president?” “What is the date of your birth?”) My diagnostic skills are still stuck in the era when I could set the timing on my 1969 Fiat Spyder with a screwdriver and a continuity tester. And How does the computing power of a 2016 Odyssey compare with that of Alan Shepard’s Mercury capsule?
In stark contrast with my own memory, that of Nancy’s window can be “refreshed.” In less than an hour, we (the car and me) were off, happily under warranty.
Last week, we finally got all our possessions out of Old House, after managing to stretch the process out for four months. As the deadline approached, and I grew increasingly concerned that it would never end, I was tempted to run up the street and warn all the neighbors, “Run! Run from all your possessions while you still can!” Just when we would think we were making headway, we would open another closet and find half a pickup load of sleeping bags, tents, and other camping stuff that our son assures us he wants and will use. Or we’d pull out of the attic several boxes of bank statements and other detritus of a business we closed almost two decades ago.
We have had several luxuries with this move. We moved just two miles. We had time to be deliberate. And we were not forced by downsizing into unloading a lot of things we were not yet ready to part with. An uncle had the opposite experience. They had decided to give up their mini-farm and move into a condo, in another state. The farm sold instantly and they had just 30 days to vacate, without a place to move to. He still wishes he’d held onto more of his tools.
Installing the handles and knobs on our new cabinet doors and drawers was an adventure. If you go into your local hardware or big box store, you will find handles whose screw spacing is a standard 3 or 4 inches. Somehow, we ended up with “none of the above.” I was struggling to measure the spacing in preparation for making a template, and finding nothing that made sense in either inches or millimeters. Fortunately, I married a practical artist. Nancy’s solution was to forego the tape measure and directly copy the hole pattern. She transferred the pattern to a piece of removable tape, rubbing the back of the handle with a graphite stick, then pressing the tape onto the back. When pulled away, the tape held the graphite, clearly showing a full scale image of the back of the handle. Then the tape was placed onto the wooden template form, and the holes drilled with the drill press.
That’s not the first time I have had to abandon my “measure and math” approach for Nancy’s “copy the pattern.” Nor the first time removable tape has come to the rescue. My father used to say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” It’s a colloquialism whose origins I do not care to know, but I understand the point.
“If we ever move,” Nancy had declared, “let’s get a level lot, so we can watch sunset every night.”
Boy, did we fail that one!
Or did we? There is a level bench for the driveway, which follows the topographic contour. And a subterranean one for the basement slab. All of which only slightly negate the elevation drop of 70 feet in 300 from the high to low points of our lot. Gardening and landscaping will be a challenge.
On the other hand, if and when the time comes, we can live on the main floor, descend two shallow steps, and walk to the mailbox along that level driveway. Not many homes in our part of the world offer that kind of level.
As to the view, it is true that thick forest lies to our west. But we have seen some spectacular sunsets filtered through that forest, more than we ever saw from our old house.
When we named this blog, The View from Blackoak Ridge, we described the “view” as “in part, a visual look at our physical surroundings” (but) “also an intellectual, spiritual, emotional view from where we are at this stage of our lives.” Being hemmed in by suburbia, the “visual” views were decidedly short range, and the visual descriptions tended toward the microscopic. (See the category, Frog Blog.)
We have moved just two miles. We are still on the same ridge, but on the back side, on the edge of city/suburbia. Some previous owner had removed trees downslope, opening up a meadow below and a “Wow!”-eliciting view of the Cumberland Mountains in the distance. Our physical view has expanded. We not only see sunsets filtered through the forest, but, I expect, in the months and years ahead will see the play of sunrise, sunset, and moving clouds on those distant mountains.
My “intellectual, spiritual, emotional” views are also tending toward the macroscopic. We have been through major changes with our parents, and I see and feel the weight of time on my own body. I am—we are—more intentional in our choices of how to spend our time; more fully into “the age of active wisdom” than when this blog began.
We are moving to the new house in the final days of 2017. It is Christmas as I write, and will still be Christmas liturgically when we move. All New Years bring new adventures; this one is pregnant with possibilities. The “bleak midwinter” gives way to new beginnings. Happy New Year! And may all your Christmases be bright.
It’s a common question, and a reasonable one. I wish it had a straightforward answer. My life would be so much simpler.
Yes, we have moved. We have moved all the clutter from the old house. Old House is ready for realtor showing. It looks as if you could move your stuff in and have plenty of room. It does not look lived in, unless your version of “lived in” means that everything is put away each morning, the beds are made, and the Better Homes and Gardens photographer could show up without notice.
No, we have not moved. Our in-season clothing, our food, our dishes, much of our furniture are still at Old House. We sometimes camp out at New House. But mostly, we sleep at Old House. Nancy calls it “going back to the hotel”—neat and clean, but lacking the comforts of home.
New House is currently not-quite-habitable. The kitchen has been gutted and the ceiling in the kitchen and family room is being raised to the roof line. We found mold, so had a delay for remediation. We are adding a kitchenette downstairs in the laundry room. That room has been an adventure, with unpleasant surprises revealed each time a wall is opened.
We are also building a “Narnia closet.” (We already have the lamppost.) By co-opting part of the carport closet, we will have an insulated and finished storage space behind the foyer coat closet. Push the coats aside (a la the wardrobe entry into Narnia) to enter this domicile of the seldom-used but moisture-sensitive.
All of which is to say that our lives are in more than the usual amount of turmoil. Where did I put my travel toiletries? My study book for Men’s Group? (It was missing for three weeks, showed up for a week, then was lost again.) What do I need to pack for an overnighter at New House? The musical instruments are at New House (except when they are not, see below), and the tools are migrating that way one toolbox at a time.
Our poor dog is having a time adjusting to this lifestyle. Mona is thirteen years old and has always been somewhat neurotic. She likes the constant stream of workmen who come to New House to pet her. She likes the larger grounds on which to romp and mark and patrol for chipmunks. But the changes are also stressful, and her anxiety levels are up. Plus, she is losing her hearing. Sometimes she loses track of where we are and wanders randomly in search. I call out, but she doesn’t hear. (The deaf calling the deaf.) On a recent day, I was trying to get her into my truck for the trip back to Old House, and she got distracted by the meter reader, followed him for a while, then wandered into a neighbor’s yard, looking lost. I called and called, but finally just waited for her to turn in my direction so I could summon her with hand signals. Sometimes I wonder if she is losing more than her hearing.
Can that old dog learn new tricks? Can I? Nancy recently convinced me to swell the percussion section of one of her bands. I have a little experience with singing but none as an instrumentalist. Our conductor and my fellow percussionists are kind—like indulgent parents, with lavish praise when I get something right and tolerant smiles when I don’t. I’m still more useful as a roady than a musician.
The music schedule and logistics are a nightmare. We will one day have an organized music room with a place for everything and everything in its place. And checklists. One day. But not yet. Consider: Nancy is a regular member of two bands and a church ensemble. We’ll call them Band 1, Band 2, and Church. For each, she uses a different combination of major instruments (bells, xylophone, cymbals, base tom), secondary instruments (triangle, tambourine, mark tree, wood blocks, shakers, Claves, jingle bells), plus supporting stands and holders, mallets, and sheet music. Here is the schedule for a recent two weeks:
That second Band 2 performance also required an “anvil,” a 25-pound chunk of steel with its own support table and a pair of hammers. All this equipment is in constant flux among the venues, Nancy’s car, and the music-room-to-be at New House, where it shares space with the furnishings and materials of the art-studio-to-be and other stuff. Is it any wonder that we showed up at Band 1 practice one night missing the cymbals and her primary set of mallets?
“Have you moved yet?” I once thought we’d be in by Thanksgiving. Now I am hoping for Christmas. Our sanity is wearing thin. Bah! Humbug!
The world’s greatest grandkids came to visit during the eclipse. Ages 1 and 3 and 5. Oh, yes, their parents came too. We all had a grand time, before, during, and after the celestial event.
The oldest’s interests are largely mechanical. He goes into long monologs about “long-reach excavators” and “pipe layers” and “ductile iron pipe” and “storage silos.” The middle one is a budding ballerina, thrilled with the tutus that Grandnan made for her. The youngest watches his siblings with adoration and charms adults with his smiles.
We have just closed on our new house and are in the middle of getting our old one ready to show. Everything must be just so in order to look attractive to potential buyers. So the brick and gravel roads our oldest grandson constructed during the eclipse weekend have to go.
We do sympathize with his interests. Nancy mourns having to leave the pond and its frogs behind. But, we can take some of the rocks and seashells that accent her gardens. There are rocks she has named: the sail, the Easter Islanders (more than one). There is her New England rock, a smooth beautifully-banded soft-ball-sized stone she picked up as a child. There are stepping stones from East Tennessee strata, displaying crinoids and other fossils, seashells from the tip of Pass-a-Grille, Florida, and exquisite corals from a beach in Taiwan.
Collecting rocks and shells is an interest we share. Together we have gathered multi-colored pebbles from a particular spot on Watts Bar Lake, grain-of-rice sized shells from a beach on Kawaii, massive eroded and fossil-encrusted stones uncovered by the grading for a new development (with permission), and endlessly variable chunks from our own woods.
My mother had outlined one of her flower beds with stones from a mica mine that had been operated on her family farm during WWII. Mostly milky quartz (at least that’s what I think it is), but there was one coconut-sized piece of quartz so clear that it had bright green moss growing underneath. Years ago, I told Nancy there was not much I coveted from my parents’ house, but I wanted that piece of clear quartz when the time came. I have it now, plus a smaller one, and some large examples of the milky variety. They will travel with us to the new house. And the red mystery rock I picked up near an Idaho ghost town.
We debated about the pagodas. Weathered and moss-covered features of our landscaping, both had been rescued from oblivion years ago. The small one had been Mother’s. The large one was being covered by poison ivy in an unused corner of a lot down the street, whose new owner had been unaware of its existence. We had installed low-voltage lights in both pagodas and made them focal points. Should we leave them to a possibly-unappreciative new owner, or take them with us? We had almost decided to leave them behind, with a request that we be given first chance if the future buyer ever wanted to get rid of them. It was our son’s chagrin at leaving them that tipped the decision. If he was willing to help move the heavy stuff, we were happy to take it.
We have not taken all, by a long shot. The gardens here still look complete, to anyone but us. And we are moving to a place that also has been lovingly care for, whose former owners also had to decide what to take and what to leave, who also left a landscape that is, to an outsider, complete. The transition from grounds that were theirs to grounds that become ours will be gradual.
What to keep, what to throw away? Recurring dilemmas that we have debated, joked about, occasionally had fights about. For Nancy and me, reluctance to part with an object is usually less about emotional attachment and more about the likelihood of finding a future use. We are both do-it-yourselfers, so have an innate desire to hang on to odds and ends. It is a balance between usefulness and clutter. Can I even find it when that future use arises? Can I function in the meantime without tripping over it?
Some of what we moved to the new house, you might consider trash. I hauled one pickup truck load of paver bricks and blocks, tag ends of past hardscaping projects. Yes, we frequently find a use for two or three. I saved a small garbage can of two-by-four scraps, for blocking and chocking and propping. Nancy has drawer after drawer of feedstock for collages and craft projects.
A decade or so ago, a couple we know was downsizing. They offered, and we accepted, a box of wood scraps. Small stuff, mostly hardwoods, mostly non-standard sizes. Some had acquired a mildew smell, so the entire lot ended up in the attic to bake out. And stayed there for years. For a constellation of reasons, that wood scrap collection has become the go to source for a number of recent projects.
A band that Nancy plays in recently did a piece called “Instant Concert.” At one point, the score calls for hammering on an anvil, which in this case was a length of I-beam suspended from a cymbal stand. (Percussionists have more fun!) So, when I was moving tools from the old shop to the new one and picked up the section of railroad rail that I use when I have occasional need for an anvil, Nancy said, “You look at that and see a tool; I see a musical instrument.”
Organizing guru, Andrew Mellen, says don’t save things that don’t have a good story. A lot of good stories are traveling to our new house.
A few weeks after Mother died, I got a note from her church with a list of people who had made memorial gifts in her name, so I could write a thank you from the family. One name on the list was a mystery. I asked Mother’s last surviving sister, but she did not know who it was either. We both had seen the name in the return address field of greeting cards Mother had received during her time in the nursing home, but neither of us had inquired further. I wrote the thank you. It was necessarily short and bland, as I was not bold enough to ask, “Who are you?”
The answer, though, came a short time later. The donor sent me a generous letter saying she was happy to have received my note, as it gave her an address for a family member. In response to my unasked question, she explained that she had a brand new degree and teaching certificate when hired by the school where my mother taught. The year was 1950, and my mother was already a veteran of probably half a dozen years. (I believe Mother’s teaching career began in 1942. I know she took a year off to have me, and I believe there were some other interruptions during the war years.)
They were colleagues for just one year before my correspondent had moved on. But she credited Mother as the reason she had survived that first year. Like Mother, she had served a full career as a teacher. She had moved several times to different cities and schools, so had lost touch with Mother for a while. But she had always remembered that year of being mentored and had re-established contact many years ago. Except for that first year, it was a friendship carried out almost entirely by correspondence. It lasted nearly seventy years.
Mother seemed to inspire long-lived friendships, even across barriers of distance or age cohort. I can think of several friendships with younger families, some more than a generation younger. Her neighbors’ four children became like grandchildren to her. When it came time to sell her house, that next-door family bought it, lovingly and beautifully updating its 1950s style to a contemporary twenty-first century look and functionality.
She made connections with other people to the end. Whenever she returned to the hospital, nurses who had cared for her previously would stop by to see how she was doing. Later, as I would walk the halls of her nursing home with her, it seemed nearly every staffer had to stop and give her a hug.
Mother was the gregarious one, and the stories people tell me typically stress kindness. Daddy died ten years ago, but I stilI hear admiring stories about him, in which the lauded traits are service and dependability. When I was young, he worked for a laundry/dry cleaners, managing operations for the often-incapacitated owner. (Pioneering radiation treatments for cancer had left the owner confined to a wheelchair, yet grateful for the decades they had added to his life.) During this period, Daddy also held leadership jobs at church. My childhood memories have him leaving his laundry job at six, coming home for a quick supper, then—several nights a week—rushing off to a seven-thirty church meeting that might last until ten.
Later, he became a self-employed carpet cleaner, working into his seventies until dementia forced his retirement. While we were working out details of Mother’s funeral, the funeral director, who had been a friend and neighbor of Mother’s older brother, told me he would ask Daddy to clean the carpets in his home each year during their family vacation. Daddy knew where the house key was hidden, would let himself in, do the work, and send a bill. One year, he found an envelope with a substantial sum of cash that had slipped behind a dresser and been lost. The funeral director returned from his vacation to find the intact envelope on top of the dresser, with a note from Daddy.
After Mother’s death, I was sharing some of these stories with a counselor, and she used the term, “quiet heroes.” That seems about right.
Quiet heroes. You may know some. You may be one. By their very nature, these quiet heroes may be unaware of the impact they have on others, of the grace they bring into other lives. Nancy’s niece recently recalled a book Nancy had given her many years ago, a book about women who had made a difference. She said she “wore that book out,” reading it again and again, mining it for inspiration. Nancy had not known.
One more story. When our son was born, Nancy’s mother was unavailable, so my mother came to help for a few days. Nancy has repeatedly praised the gift of those days, commenting how Mother quietly kept the household running (meals, laundry, …), not offering advice unless asked, allowing Nancy and Jay the freedom to work out a mother-child pattern that worked for them.
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.”
I have been on the road. I visited my 95-year-old mother late last week. Found her much as in other recent visits, a little weaker each time, but not dramatically so. A few days later, I got a 4 am call from her nursing home that she had just passed away.
Until age 90, she had been unusually active and healthy. Disgustingly so, we might say in jest. No prescription medications. Living on her own. Driving. Visiting the less fortunate shut-ins of her church. Not so healthy in recent years, she had spent the last three in the nursing home. Vision problems deprived her of her beloved reading. Hearing problems made conversation difficult and TV impossible (although, aside from Jeopardy, she had never had much use for that medium). The joys of life were increasingly harder to find, and she had long been ready to meet her maker. For some time she’s been telling people she had awakened disappointed that God did not take her in the night. Yet she still continued to defy expectations.
When I would visit, I would take her a cup of coffee. The nursing home coffee was tepid and so weak that you could see the bottom of the cup. We would sit together, each sipping our McDonalds Senior Coffees. This last trip, I could not even do that. She was restricted to thickened beverages, and thickened coffee was intolerable. Her final illness was swift and merciful.
So I have made two round trips to North Carolina in a week. And while my travels were focused on my mother, this post is not really about her. I am not ready to do that yet. My travels did, however, generate some figurative side trips, and memories of some real ones, running through my head alongside the thoughts surrounding Mother’s death. The side trips, I can write about.
Side Trip #1: I listened to lots of political news on the radio as I drove. Senate hearings and other major drama. Abundant occasion for raised blood pressure. Sadness. Despair.
As I walked into the hotel early this week, the ubiquitous silent TV monitor showed a banner running along the bottom of the news channel: The president’s daughter is surprised at the vehemence of her father’s critics. Huh? Her father is vehemence-in-chief!! How can the reaction of his detractors be a surprise? It’s a basic biological reaction: fight attack with counter-attack!
Did you catch that? That I am part of the problem? My sarcastic response is vehemence and anger returned. I am truly fearful and angry at the president’s agenda and actions. If he succeeds, many will be hurt, including some in my immediate family. But what if he fails? If he fails, his many supporters will be presumably be angry and hurt (and fearful?). And that is the scariest part of all. I do not know how to relate to his supporters, and they do not know how to relate to me. No matter which side prevails, a large portion of our citizenry will be hurt and angry and left out. We—our country and our world—are in a deep bind. And I do not see any political leader with a vision for bridging that divide.
Don’t waste any time dividing the world into the good guys and the bad guys. Hold them both together in your own soul—where they are anyway—and you will have held together the whole world. You will have overcome the great divide in one place of spacious compassion. You, little you, will have paid the price of redemption. God takes it from there, replicating the same pattern in another conscious human life.
I wish I had that faith, and the wherewithal to “hold Trump and anti-Trump together in my own soul.” For now, it remains merely a hope. The only one I have to cling to.
Side Trip #2: On a lighter note: I am not a photographer. I’m not skilled at it, nor do I often even think of capturing an image or event until the opportunity is gone. I did not think to photograph the raccoon groping in Nancy’s frog pond in the middle of the night. I did not think to photograph the red-tailed hawk drinking from the pond early one morning. But the one I did think about—the one that would not have been able to escape before I grabbed my phone and pressed the shutter, the one that would have lifted the dark tone of this post toward a healthy chuckle—that one I saw on my travels this week. But I did not turn around, park on the shoulder, get out of my truck, cross traffic to the median, and take the shot. It was indeed an image worth many words. And since I did not take the photo, you will have to indulge my words. Imagine a tractor-trailer. The trailer is a fuel tanker. The rig is stalled, partially blocking the right-hand lane. It is surrounded by a protective row of orange cones. Emblazoned on the rear of the trailer is the company name: RELIABLE.
Side Trips Galore: Over the years, I have made that trip to North Carolina more than a hundred times. Four hours, one way, via I-40. And I have taken about every alternative route and side trip that I could find on the map. US 25/70 from Newport to Asheville via Hot Springs is an obvious diversion, and I had some especially great drives on its twists and turns when we owned the Miata. US 70 from Old Fort to Hickory is another great alternative, with good views across Lake James into the southern end of the Linville Gorge, interesting restaurants in Morganton, and the Burke County Courthouse, built just a few years after the hanging of Frankie Silver.
If you have the time and an urge for back country, descend the Blue Ridge escarpment from Ridgecrest (Exit 66) to Old Fort via Mill Creek Road, past the artificial Andrews Geyser, a 19th century railroad marketing ploy. For the more adventurous with a couple of hours to spend, make your way between the Harmon Den and Fines Creek exits (7 to 15) via the backroads.
In a hurry? There is still hope. Eastbound, past Newport, take the Wilton Springs exit (440) and follow the Hartford Road to Hartford, where you can re-enter I-40 (Exit 447). You will rarely be out of sight and sound of the interstate, but if you slow down and open the window, you can also hear the Pigeon River, which the road closely hugs. It will add less than ten minutes to your trip, maybe years to your life.
For some reason, I was recently thinking about the line from Tolkien, “Not all those who wander are lost,” and turning it around to say, “All who wander are not lost.” Is it not necessary to wander, to take the occasional side trip? And are these various side trips perhaps key to making sense of our path through life, and to making a positive and creative contribution as we pass through?
Our dryer failed. The one my parents gave us as a wedding present. Almost 27 years ago. They just don’t make ‘em like they used to!
I had opened the dryer to check on a load of towels, and found them stone cold and as wet as when removed from the washer. Tried different heat settings. Nope. No heat. Oh well, I didn’t really want a drill press. Deep in my heart of hearts, I was really wanting a new dryer.
Our dryer had been getting less and less effective, even when it had a working heating element. Two-and-a-half hours to dry a load of towels. I kept wondering whether the exhaust duct was filled with lint, but when I held my hand at the end, the flow seemed strong. Shows how little I know.
When we added on to our house a quarter-century ago, dryer efficiency was not high on our priority list, and we ended up with a long and twisting mess of a duct run. Half was flexible tubing draped around the backs of some cabinets; the other half, rigid metal zig-zagging inaccessibly through the HVAC chase. So actually checking on the extent of our dryer lint buildup seemed a can of worms I’d rather not open. But, with a dead dryer, we’d be opening one end anyway. I did some research. Did you know that dryer lint is a major cause of house fires? Did you know they have these handy kits at your local hardware store for cleaning out the insides of your dryer ducts?
So we took the plunge. Actually, Nancy did the hard part. While I was napping (what are Sunday afternoons for?), she pulled the washer and dryer away from the wall, stripped out all the accessible flexible ducting, and cleaned the floor under the machines. And the walls. And the pipes and hoses and other nooks and crannies. Amazing how much dust and lint and unmentionable mess can accumulate behind and under an appliance.
I then did the cool stuff, chucking the brush from our new duct cleaning kit into my drill and spinning it through the inaccessible part of the run.
Worked like a charm, even going through two right angle bends. We reamed out an embarrassing quantity of dryer lint, gave thanks that our house still stands, and then faced how to replace the flexible stuff (and associated dips and turns) with smooth rigid metal ducting.
The latter took an additional half day: sawing out the backs of a couple of cabinets and connecting the shiny new duct sections. That oscillating saw I bought a year ago earned its keep.
The real stress, however, was buying the replacement appliances. Yes, appliances, plural. The washer was nearly as old as the dryer and had been requiring more and more vinegar to keep the musty odor in check. Fortunately, the dryer died during the Memorial Day sales. (Or are appliances like some other markets in which there is always a sale going on?)
How should we choose among the many brands and models and features? Do glass lids and sculpted sheet metal really add value? How many sensors and settings do we need? What is really useful and what is hype? Wifi capability? You’re kidding, right?
No wifi. I don’t want a close and personal relationship with my dryer. And I don’t want to give the cyber-sleaze additional portals into my life.
We ended up with an unmatched pair—a relatively unadorned dryer that looks like appliances used to look, and a glass-lidded, sculpted metal washer whose irresistible siren call was its huge tub size and its deeply-discounted closeout pricing. No more jamming oversized comforters into the washer; this baby could wash a car cover. We can barely reach the bottom. A short person would need a step stool to empty it.
An expensive experience for sure! But some good came of it. We resolved a safety hazard. And we have this nifty duct cleaning kit. I’ll let you use it in exchange for, say, a half-hour of garden weeding? A cup of coffee and a Donut Palace apple fritter? The use of your drill press? Or just a few minutes of good conversation.
P.S. In the under-dryer detritus, Nancy found her wedding ring—the spare one, bought during her pregnancy. Our son had borrowed and lost it back in his middle school years. No wonder we couldn’t find it when we ran a metal detector over neighborhood yards!
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.