Your tiny hand squeezing my pinky finger. Your bright blue eyes studying my face, studying the world. These are some of my earliest memories of you. At one month, you stare at the dark ceiling beams overhead, then the trapezoids of light that are your living room windows. Those, I am told, are beyond your focal point, so you cannot see the detail—the turning-red leaves of the black tupelo against the clear October sky. But your eyes are hungry to absorb your surroundings, too curious to close until you are tired beyond sleepy. You delight in the world around you.
Circumstances brought you to live with your Grandnan and I at two months of age. Now you are going on five months, so you and I have had an intense, round the clock bonding, more like what I could have had with your dad and his brothers, if I had been more aware and open and mature. We’re buddies at 2 AM feedings and again at 4, when you need a diaper change and you think it’s time to play. I’m there in the evenings when you are fussy—as sleep or that last burp won’t come. I’m there in the mornings when you’re all smiles, lighting up the room.
I note the day to day changes, your growing strength and coordination, your curiosity and observations. I kiss the soft fuzz on your round dome a dozen times a day, noting the heat radiating as your brain makes ever more connections.
We talk, you and I. You regale me with your stories—those sounds you are learning to make—and when you discover a new one, you joyfully repeat it over and over and over. I tell you stories, too, about the cousins you have yet to meet, about the things we will do together—read books, play in the woods.
You are still drawn to strong contrasts and patterns: the false shamrock in the window, dark leafless trees against gray January skies, lights. But you are also aware of the subtler things: someone leaving the room, the dog inviting play via a dropped tennis ball. You recognize a recording of classical guitar, my go-to when you need a distraction from the painful gas bubble in your stomach.
Delighted. Still delighted.
In the Episcopal baptismal service, there is a prayer with the line, “give them … the gift of joy and wonder…” You were born with that gift; I suspect all babies are. Perhaps the prayer should be that we adults don’t snuff that gift out of you. Perhaps the prayer should be that we adults are opened to have that gift renewed in ourselves, to let you be our teacher.
It’s a scary world you’ve entered.During your lifetime, climate change is likely to cause great physical and social upheavals. Wars and acts of hatred seem closer to home than at any other time in my life. I worry about your future. But, you also give me hope. In a recent (January 21) On Being newsletter, The Pause, Krista Tippett writes of the teachings of the civil rights leader and, later, congressman, John Lewis: “in the space between the world as it is and what we long for it to become, we are called to “live as if” the possibility we aspire to is already present.”
Can I live in love when the world spews hate? Can I live in hope, not fear? As much for your sake as for any other reason, I try. And you also teach me how. You exhaust me, little guy, and I so look forward to your returning to your home soon. But your presence in my life is a precious gift. And the gift I most want to give you is the knowledge that you are loved.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
Nancy was to give a workshop this weekend, and attend the opening reception for a show which includes some of her paintings. But a water leak in the Ice House nixed those plans, and the activities will be rescheduled. The rest of the trip, however, was great.
We delivered the paintings early in the week and then played tourist. Berkeley Springs, WV, (originally Town of Bath, VA) has a long history as a tourist destination, due to its warm mineral springs, mountain setting, and proximity to Washington and Baltimore. George Washington spent time there, and one person-sized spring-fed hole in the valley floor is called his bathtub. We did some driving, some hiking, some good eating.
Then we moved on, through Harpers Ferry and the horse country of northern Virginia, to visit the grandkids. We had the opportunity to spend a whole day with them while their parents were at work. The three-year-old has always favored his grandfathers over the grandmothers, so it was a delight for Nancy to be the favorite of the almost-one-year-old, who constantly flashed her smile and her two teeth. Grandson and I spent some time with his “tricybicle” (TRI-si-BI-kul), but he is mostly a sticks-and-stones kind of guy with a great imagination. Sticks become smokestacks, vacuum cleaner extension wands become leaf blowers, and play is accompanied by complex story monologues.
We returned to Berkeley Springs, where we learned of the cancelations and decided to go home early. Travel is fun—seeing new sights and learning new things and eating new foods. But there is no place like home.