Tag Archives: family

A Progress Report

Transitions

Transitons. Transitions. Transitions. They keep piling on, and it is hard to catch a breath.  Starting with happy ones: our fifth and sixth grandchildren are on the way. The fifth child in one family and the first in the other are both due in late summer.

In more happy news, our youngest took a new job with greater career potential and then decided to move house in order to shorten the commute. It’s a seller’s market, and their house sold quickly.

Then, an unhappy transition. Nancy’s mother passed away  just before Easter. It was a blessedly short illness, just eighteen days from diagnosis until the end. Time enough for appropriate goodbyes to be said, short enough so that agonies were not prolonged. 

Just this past week, Nancy’s father decided the time had come to move into an independent living facility. It is a transition not entirely resulting from his wife’s death—we had all known that the time was approaching for both of them. But not unrelated either—her parents had remained backstops for each other, a level of safety net that her death took away. Moving to a facility is not a milestone we typically think to celebrate. But I do celebrate that he took the decision on his own rather than being forced by some type of emergency and that he now has a deeper safety net and a level of social engagement not available when living alone in an apartment.

Watching (and walking with) my own parents in their last years, plus accompanying Nancy as she goes through the process with her parents, has led me to ponder how I will make that journey when my time comes. Each of our parents has had moments of graceful acceptance and moments of stubborn denial as the boundaries of what is possible have shrunk with age. How will I respond? Will I “rage against the dying of the light?” Or will I let go of my ego’s need to achieve and control? I am no scholar on the topic, but it seems that multiple wisdom traditions describe this letting go as an essential  stage of a life well lived—an emptying in order to be filled with something greater. In her wise book, Old Age: Journey into Simplicity, Helen M. Luke draws from classic literature (The Odyssey, King Lear, The Tempest, Little Gidding) examples of “growing into old age.” As with all growth, painful and rewarding.

Moving, Moving, Moving

You might have caught on that some of these transitions necessitate the moving of persons and stuff. Nancy’s father moving from his apartment into the facility. The disposition of all the “stuff” that does not go with him. 

As to the kids, the ones moving in order to shorten a commute, they are both sellers and buyers. A seller’s market it is, a buyer’s it is not. They are still searching for a new house. And they just agreed with their buyer to move up the closing date on their old one. That means—Oops!—vacating this weekend, putting most of their possessions into storage, and moving in with parents. Us. 

As I am writing, Nancy’s dad’s decision is less than a week old, and we have just received four day’s notice regarding our new house guests. Can you spell, busy?

Nature at Neverdone

Neverdone is the tongue-in-cheek name I have given this place we bought almost five years ago. We are for the moment at a point of stasis on construction projects. But the rescue of our two acres from invasive plants and its restoration into something like a native wildlife habitat is an ongoing and never-ending endeavor. A brief update.

Frog Pond with Iris

 

Nancy’s frog pond is a living, breathing thing of beauty—teeming with frogs at all stages of development, dragon flies, healthy aquatic plants, even a predacious diving beetle!

Tadpoles

 

We are continuing our experiment of smothering weeds under black plastic for a year, then sowing native wildflowers. Strip #1 is in its second year of flower, currently yellow with Blackeyed Susan and coreopsis. Strip #2 is in its first year, blooming blue and pink with cornflower, tinted brown with ripening wheat. (I wonder if the threshing unit on the combine was malfunctioning when our straw was baled. Never have I seen such a crop of wheat from bales of straw!) Strip #3 (it will be our last) is under plastic until fall. We are happy so far with the experiment, but the ground ivy is already creeping back into Strip #1. Can we keep it in check with hand weeding? Perhaps, if we can stay healthy (Nancy lost a couple of weeks to Covid) and get beyond this flurry of moving.

Meadow Strips #1 (background) and #2 (foreground)

 

In other parts of “the estate,” our war on invasives is a see-saw battle with no clear winner. I had thought we were winning against the oriental stiltgrass: A year ago, in some areas where we had pulled or scythed it down for two successive seasons, native violets seemed to have reclaimed their habitat. But this year, the stiltgrass has returned with a vengence, smothering the violets. Some was already knee high when I took the string trimmer to it earlier this week. The oriental bittersweet vines (that modifier, “oriental,” seems to herald trouble when applied to plant life in East Tennessee) that I pulled or poisoned last year seem to have become Hydra, their underground root systems pushing up new vines seven-fold. As to English ivy, we are holding our own, just barely. When one troublemaker seems in retreat, another surges ahead. I can almost hear a race announcer, “Italian Arum is fading in the stretch, but Air Potato is coming on strong.”

Our late winter hard freeze cut into the redbud and dogwood blossoms this year, but the spring show of azalea and rhododendron was spectacular. Whether by design or happy accident, the mix that we inherited have staggered bloom times. One or two or three shrubs will be in glorious color for a few days, then as they fade another set will open up, so that the azalea/rhody season lasts for a couple of months. I had thought the show was over for the year when some large rhododendron that had not shown much in years past revealed themselves as late bloomers whose white-to-pale pink blooms extended the season into late June.  Now the hydrangeas are taking over, and the show continues. 

Our wildlife predator mix is changing. For the first few years, we frequently sighted barred owl and red-shouldered hawk. As recently as a year ago, the late winter/early spring air was filled with barred owl mating call and response. This year, nothing. Nancy may have heard an owl one night. I may have spotted one in flight through the woods. I heard a hawk just last week, but it was the first all year. Could their absence be related to the increasing sightings of coyote and (for the first time) red fox? From the number of chipmunk I see running about, there appears no shortage of prey for all. 

 

That’s our brief report from the frontlines. Back to packing.

Quiet Heroes

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.

Quiet hero indeed.

Thoughts from the Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Monday’s meditation, Richard Rohr wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… There is a Season …

Last night we had our first killing frost—a full month later than normal. I had harvested the last of the zinnias yesterday, enough for two small bunches on the kitchen windowsill.

Not only has this been an unusually warm fall, but an extremely dry summer and fall. Only in the past week have a few brilliantly colored trees caught my eye. In my nearly 40 years in East Tennessee, this is just the second time I have seen the haze of wildfire smoke as a regional phenomenon.

I have been thinking about seasons. Although late—and less than visually spectacular—fall is here, and winter will come. The holiday season is upon us, and I am mulling the Thanksgiving Day menu.

But it’s more than the annual calendar that draws my attention. I am acutely aware of the seasons of the human life-cycle. Change is all around me.

This spring, we sold my mother’s house; she is in a nursing home. A few months later, our youngest son moved out on his own. Now, Nancy is helping her parents prepare for a move from large house to small apartment.

Of perhaps less significance, but still somehow looming large in my consciousness, are other changes. We will have six around our Thanksgiving dinner table this week; we have cycled through large family gatherings to just the two of us and now back to a family event. Last fall, Nancy’s artistic energy was directed toward the visual; this year, her music. Last fall, major gardening tasks drove me; this year, my shop is calling. Everywhere, I hear The Byrds singing, “Turn, turn, turn …”

I was doing some baking this afternoon, and had set my computer’s music into an autoplay mode. In the midst of my musing about seasons, I was serenaded by Jennifer Nicely singing Tom Waits’ “You Can Never Hold Back Spring.” Not for the first time, the double meaning hit me. We cannot hold onto our springtimes. Nor can we prevent spring coming again.

Summer Winding Down

“Is it normal for there to be no bird song and no insect buzzing?”

I am hiking to Hen Wallow Falls with West Coast son, who’s visiting this week, and have been conscious of the silence for the last quarter mile. Inwardly, I am reflecting that the older I get, the less I know about more and more.

“I was noticing the lack of birds,” he replies. “I do hear some insects, though.”

They must be masked by my tinnitus.

It is great to spend time with him. Last night we saw Violet at the Clarence Brown Theater. (Highly recommend) Today, this hike in the Smokies. During the week, the dew point has dropped from the high-60s to today’s mid-50s. After weeks of August’s heat-induced doldrums, it is energizing to be outdoors again.

At home, we are waiting for the turtles to hatch. For the third year (non-consecutive), we observed an Eastern box turtle leave the woods and deposit her eggs in the gravel walkway behind our house. Nancy placed an upended milk crate over the spot to mark it and protect from foot traffic and other hazards. Then she marked the calendar. The youngsters should be emerging soon.

School is back in session. Tomorrow is the last of the summer breakfasts to be prepared by our men’s group. One of Nancy’s bands will give its last summer performance on Monday. The black gum in our front yard is busily shedding its summer foliage into our pond.

Summer’s winding down.

Soon I’ll not be able to use the heat as my excuse to stay out of the garden, out of the shop. I’m glad. Some good projects await.

For all its joys, I will not miss summer. I am ready for what comes next.

A Tribute to Mothers and Fathers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To our parents, and to parents everywhere, thanks.

Somewhat Stunned

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dancing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ordinary Time

In addition to our travels outlined in that last post, we’ve had separate trips involving our parents. But we’re home for a while now; back in ordinary time. Ordinary time in the conventional sense, and somewhat in the liturgical sense as well.

The calendar of the Christian church is dominated by the two great feasts, Christmas and Easter. Advent (four weeks) precedes—and prepares one for—Christmastide (12 days). Later, Lent (six weeks) precedes—and prepares one for—Eastertide (50 days). [Note that Christmas and Easter are not single days in the church calendar. After spending four—or six—weeks in preparation for a feast, we make that feast last. Only in the secular world do we sweep out the Easter grass and go back to work the next day.]

That still leaves three-fifths of the year. The season between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, and the longer season between Pentecost and Advent, are in some traditions called Ordinary Time.

Liturgical Calendar
Liturgical Calendar

In the children’s program of instruction called The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, the church year is simplified as a circle of six segments; two triplets labeled Before the Feast, During the Feast, and After the Feast. Their liturgical colors are purple (before), white (during), and green (after). One triplet represents the Christmas cycle (Advent, Christmastide, and the season after Epiphany); the other, the Easter cycle (Lent, Eastertide, and the season after Pentecost). Ordinary time comes after the feast.

In the popular conception, Mondays and other post-holidays are depressing days. We dread the end of the weekend, the end of the holiday. We dread going back to work or school, and we apply a pejorative label: back to the rat race, back to the salt mine. The end of the feast is the end of all that is good. I’ve had some of those days.

And yet, a serious post-feast let-down would not be an indictment of post-feast time itself, but a symptom of a pathology in my life. Ordinary Time is not boring time, not drudgery time. Its liturgical color is green, not gray. Ordinary Time is the season in which we engage productively with the world. Ordinary Time is when we live our lives in gratitude for the feast.

How am I spending my Ordinary Time? Here is a sample:

  • A trip to the going-out-of-business sale at the local used bookstore, through which I discovered the fiction of Richard Marius (definitely worth further reading), and picked up the books on which two favorite movies were based (Chocolat and Like Water for Chocolate)
  • Fall gardening tasks: digging, dividing, reshaping, mulching, and adding some hardscaping
  • Simple shop tasks for Nancy to support her painting and music
  • Almost daily long walks with the dog
  • Naps

I have been especially attentive to autumn leaves this fall, not through any virtue of mine but because Nancy has been collecting and pressing/preserving them for her art work. In past years, the fall leaf show was mostly observed from a moving car at highway speed. Peak color season lasted just a few days. How different when collecting on daily walks! I am newly aware that the season lasts months, not weeks or days. Even within a species, leaves may turn color weeks apart, depending on sun exposure and other factors. This past weekend, I was treated to views of still brilliant reds and yellows while, in the background, the Black Mountains northeast of Asheville were covered in hoarfrost. Ordinary time indeed!

Our trip to grandkids and to Berkeley Springs was a feast, grace on grace, blessing on blessing. Weeks later, I still savor the feast even while going about my day-to-day. But, frankly, too much feast is too much. I am glad to be home. Yes, some things are not so much fun. There are dishes to wash, floors to mop, toilets to clean. But there are also books to read, gardens to tend, music to make, paintings to paint, autumn leaves in their astonishing variety and glory to enjoy even while raking. And photos of grandchildren to savor.

… and a Crescent Moon for a Mouth

We recently made our second trip to Berkeley Springs, WV. A do-over for the one a month earlier, aborted by a broken pipe in the Ice House. Both rescheduled events, the exhibition’s opening reception and Nancy’s workshop, went off without a hitch this time around.

In fact, for us the water break became a happy accident. The weather and the fall leaf show were perfect all the way from Oak Ridge to Berkeley Springs. It was the weekend of the annual studio tour, and we found time to enjoy several of the open studios. And people we’d met briefly on the first trip became friends. By the time we left, we had begun to feel a part of the community. A warm and welcoming, hospitable, creative community.

This second trip also gave us the occasion to have another day of grandkid child care. They live just far enough away so that visits are not frequent. This opportunity to see them twice in a month was rare and treasured.

Grandson and I carved a jack’o’lantern. First, a trip to the grocery store for a pumpkin. “Which one do you want?” “That one.” No hesitation in the face of too many choices. He’s a decisive child. “That one.”

Triangle eyes ...
Triangle eyes …

Once we are home, more complicated decisions. What should our jack look like? “Triangle eyes, a circle nose, and a crescent moon for a mouth.”

Again, no hesitation. Lines from a story he’s heard in day care perhaps? Nancy takes out a tablet of paper and engages him in sketching. Triangles pointing up or down? Happy or sad face? Where should the nose go? How big? Where the mouth?

When they have the plan right, we proceed to construction. Pumpkin in the sink, grandson safely on the step stool at my side, a brief lesson in knife safety (keep the sharp edge pointed away). We take off the top, scrape out the seeds and pulp with the ice cream scoop. He declines the offer to get his hands into the mess. He’ll just watch.

“First eye here?” “Yes.” Three incisions and the triangle pops out. Nancy documents with photos as we work. “Second eye here?”  Then the nose. The mouth. And we’re done. Triangle eyes, a circle nose, and a crescent moon for a mouth.

We place jack on the patio and he plays with it the rest of the day. Incorporates it into his favorite play with “sticks and trees.” Open the lid, drop some leaves or dirt inside, close the lid. The weather’s great for outdoor play. Watching the leaves fall and commenting on their colors. Granddaughter, who napped during jack’s creation, is anxious to get outdoors, too. She’s almost walking, still needs to clutch Grandnan’s hands. We’ll not be here for her first birthday in a couple of weeks, so she gets her gift early. Her first baby doll.

Hugging Baby
Hugging Baby

Now, several weeks later, back in Tennessee, Nancy’s photos of her hugging her doll recall precious memories, and not just the recent ones. I got to hold her on the day she was born. Could a year have passed so quickly?