Tag Archives: work

Soul Gardening

“How are you today?” It’s my chiropractor’s usual opening line.

“OK, ’til half an hour ago,” I reply, “then my back said, ‘We’re done!’”

I had been facing uphill on a 45 degree slope, bent over, digging a trench for a drain line. 

I have been here often enough to know the signs. When my erectors seem on the edge of spasm, I heed the warnings. I had hurriedly showered and driven to his office before he closed for lunch. With a quick adjustment, and the admonition to put ice on my back when I got home, I was in and out in a few minutes. (It is a patient-friendly business model—monthly fee, unlimited visits, no appointments, no insurance, no up-sell. I hope it continues to work for him. It certainly does for us. But that’s not what this post is about.)

Later, at home, as I gather my lumbar support cushion and my ice pack, I pick up a book from the night stand. Soul Gardening (subtitled Cultivating the Good Life, by Terry Hershey) is one of several currently at my bedside, to be sampled and savored a few bites at a time while winding down at the end of the day. The book mark is at the beginning of the section, “Winter.” Winter soul gardening, it seems, is about Sabbath. Just as we need, and are lovingly commanded to take, regular rest, our gardens too need that seasonal rest. They may be unproductive—even ugly—in winter, but in that mess lie the seeds of rebirth that spring will bring forth. My back, it seems, needs Sabbath. 

The temperature is in the nineties, yet my deck is shaded after midday and there is a slight breeze. I sit, read, watch the mountains and our meadow, nap. Lately, I have been doing my morning journaling out here. Soul gardening. 

The View from Our Deck

We have come through an extended time in which we were driven by agendas that left little time for rest. Selling parental houses, remodeling and moving into this one, getting through the wedding of our youngest. We have recently reached a point where we talk of the luxury of choice. Yes, we have a list of projects in and around our new home that will take years, at least. Yes, we have other obligations—including church and musical organizations. But, as we tried to explain to our son and daughter-in-law when they worried that we were working too hard, much of what is on our To-Do lists is play. Others golf or fish or travel. We play in yard and shop and studio. These days, when we wake in the morning and consider how to spend the day, we are making happy choices from a large and luscious menu.

I am reminded of those discussions in the business literature of my mid-career days, warning of the trap of urgency. All of us fall into that trap, spending our time and energy on tasks that are presented as urgent, to the detriment of those that in our hearts we know to be more important. Perhaps it is the wisdom of age; perhaps the luxury of retirement; possibly just that, at my age, society no longer views me fit for the urgent tasks. Whatever the reason, my life is less driven by urgency and more by importance, than at any time in my past. 

So I am not much put out by the forced leisure. That trench will get done, or not. Maybe my son will do it. With care, my back will recover in a day or so, and I will—carefully— resume my digging and hauling and mulching. With a healthy dose of reading and writing and watching for hawks from my deck chair.

First Spring at New House

“I haven’t seen many trillium so far,” Nancy commented. It’s our first Spring at New House, and what will come popping out of the ground is still a mystery. At Old House, we had a couple of sections of woods that were almost carpeted in trillium. 

I replied that I had seen a few, all in our paths, being trampled by our feet and The Goat. (More on The Goat later.) “Maybe we have a rare subspecies, path trillium.” That was many weeks ago, and we are indeed blessed with trillium, in woods and meadow and, yes, even in the paths. Trillium and so much more! 

First came the crocus. Spring begins for me then, when the crocus push their thin green leaves up through the winter brown, six weeks or so ahead of calendar spring. I am not one of those gardeners who keeps records of the what and when of emergence and bloom. Not even in my head do I remember the order, and there are so many plants, even ones Nancy has long cultivated, whose identities I can’t recall. Regardless, Spring is always one “Wow!” after another, from crocus emergence until well into summer. Our first spring at New House has been a delight. 

We have had an abundance of Spring’s showy flowers. Daffodil and redbud and dogwood and azalea and rhododendron. Even the carpet of violets in The Meadow was stunning. I could never make up my mind about the violets in the yard at Old House: Were we aiming for suburban lawn or wild meadow? Here at New House, the choice for wild meadow is clear. 

As exciting, however, are the more subtle plants. The aforementioned trillium. The unfurling umbrellas of the mayapple. Wood hyacinth. Bloodroot. 

Nancy first noticed the white blossoms of bloodroot peeking from the edge of a leaf pile. We are still trying to figure out what to do with the bounty of leaves our trees drop in the fall. Some of my choices in the rush of last fall were … well, it won’t happen again. I had to move that pile of leaves to unburden the bloodroot. 

Have I mentioned that our new place is steep? Take an already steep hillside—it falls seventy feet in three hundred. Cut a bench for driveway, house, and garage. What do you get? Escarpments above and below the bench. We live at the top of the lot and much of our gardening will take place below. We have not found a way to get from bottom to top without some forty-five degree climbing. (Nancy’s father will testify to how steep it is. He experienced a pacemaker event after climbing back to the house.) Lugging tools and materials is a challenge. So we bought The Goat. It’s a four-wheel-drive electrically-powered walk-behind cart. Not a toy, it has a ten cubic foot bed and a flat land capacity of 750 pounds. On our 1-to-1 slopes, it has no problem controlling heavy loads going downhill and hauling tools and trash and rock up. So, The Goat and I moved that huge pile of leaves from beside the driveway to the bottom of The Meadow.

(“The Goat,” by the way, is our nickname for our more prosaically-named Overland Cart. We wanted to convey the idea of a sure-footed beast of burden. Kawasaki had co-opted Mule; Yak and Llama are too exotic. I’m not being prudish, but The Ass does not roll off the tongue, although The Donkey almost does, despite the extra syllable. The Jack? The Jenny? Nah! So we are back to the gender-neutral Goat.)

What’s missing from our normal spring sensory feast is the mating calls of the frogs. Nancy hasn’t yet replaced the frog pond we left behind at Old House. While the new occupants of Old House occasionally send a photo, and we can sometimes hear frogs in the distance, it’s not like having that cacophony just beyond your picture window. 

In other wildlife news, we have a pair of crazed bluebirds who have been flying against our windows for the past two months. As happened last year at Old House, this jealous pair is more interested in attacking their reflections in the windows than in settling down to raise a brood. So far, they have inspected and rejected the woodpecker hole in our house siding and the bluebird boxes that I put up for their convenience. Nancy had tacked a long fluttery piece of plastic sheet to the side of the house to drive off the woodpecker. It worked on the woodpecker, but is no deterrent for the bluebirds.

If there is a downside to spring, it is poison ivy. Would Tennessee still be “the greenest state in the land of the free” without poison ivy? We are “blessed” with the stuff, and with English ivy as well. We have declared war on both, a statement that will draw laughs from all who hear it. We will keep you posted. 

Nancy has been finding four-leaf clovers. She has a facility for seeing that pattern in seemingly casual glances at the ground. I have always found it a remarkable skill, having never found one myself without her first pointing out a general location. But it occurred to me just a few days ago that I have a similar facility for finding poison ivy. A nearly subconscious part of my brain will register the distinctive pattern of leaves (or patterns, plural, as the plant has lots of variety), then I stop and consciously search it out so I can spray or pull or step over. In a recent episode of “On Being,” Krista Tippett’s guest talked of the 500,000 generations of mankind as wild animal before civilization (the invention of agriculture) a mere 500 generations ago. Is it that wild animal part of our brains—the sub-conscious, pre-conscious part—that recognizes the pattern of the four-leaf clover or the three-leaved poison ivy? Occasionally, as I am walking, it will come to me that, for instance, the ball of my right foot will land on a particular sidewalk crack five steps from now. It is not a trick I can consciously replicate, nor is that insight always present. But when it comes, it is invariably correct. Useless in the current context, but not hard to imagine the survival value of sensing where your foot is about to land, or distinguishing a copperhead’s pattern in the leaf litter. 

Speaking of snakes, one day, as Nancy was going up the hill from The Meadow while I was still below, she called back a question: Do blacksnakes try to “rattle?” She’d seen it and was confident it was not a rattler. It turns out that they do try to emulate that hair-raising sound. We have not seen it again. We are glad it is nearby, though would prefer to only see it at a distance. All the more reason to roll that rodent-friendly ivy farther from the house.

It is nearly Summer now. Spring’s yellow and white and magenta and red and purple have mostly morphed into the deep green of a Southern summer. The early morning tapping of bluebirds on the window has waned. We have some vegetables in the ground, and some wildflower seeds sprinkled in The Meadow.

There is “a ton” of work still to be done, in our house and on our grounds and at church. But we wake every morning thankful that we find the work is mostly play as well, and that we have the capacity to do it and the opportunity to choose that day’s agenda.

It was a wild and wonderful spring. Anne Lamott says there are only three prayers: Help! Thank you! and Wow! So, “Thank you!” and “Wow!” Amen.

The Age of Active Wisdom (or Seventy is the New Fifty)

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 distance and a 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.”

The Questions

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.

Adventures in Shop-ing

Part I—Inspiration

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.

Part II—Interlude

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.

Part III—Perspiration

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.

Triquetrae

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.

Nancy’s xylophone

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.

Of Chaos and Spring

Was it Luther? Somewhere I read something to the effect that he prayed for an hour each day, except on days he was especially busy—then he prayed for two hours. In that vein, perhaps I can justify taking some time to write.

My life is chaos. It is largely my own fault, and nothing that deserves your great sympathy. My desk is chaos, because of my own habits of procrastination and sloth. My shop is chaos, because (in addition to the aforementioned procrastination and sloth) in the midst of my latest project, my table saw’s blade raising and lowering mechanism failed, and I now have saw parts and tools layered over that project on the workbench and underfoot all over the floor. Our house is chaos because in selling the houses of my mother and Nancy’s parents, we have ended up with more stuff than anyone could possibly use. My “To Do” list is chaos because I have made commitments that I should have not made.

On second thought, as I look at the list, I do not regret any of the voluntary commitments. It is, for the most part, an exciting and life-affirming list. The To-Do’s I dread are involuntary, chief among them being the annual income tax flagellation.

The table saw has been a major setback. After scanning the on-line forums and evaluating my choices, I opted for an epoxy called J-B Weld. I knew that if I screwed up, there’d be hell to pay, but I was careful and as thorough as I knew to be. After applying the epoxy, I tested that the parts that needed to slide against each other would still slide, then laid everything aside for the epoxy to cure overnight. Alas! This morning when I tried to re-assemble, I couldn’t even jam the parts together, much less expect them to slide freely. Does J-B Weld expand on curing? Everything looks just as I had left it last evening, but I have lost a critical few thousandths of an inch in clearance. I will have to remove that from the polished aluminum casting with an abrasive. More delay in getting back to my projects. More tasks I have never done before and must learn on the fly. More opportunity to screw up and ruin what was a pretty good saw.

I need an attitude adjustment. Writing helps. Sitting here helps—sitting in a comfortable chair, watching my dog watching the life just outside our dining room window. Earlier this morning, that life included a flock of goldfinches splashing in the pond. Two days ago, the pond hosted a frenzied flock of robins (and a lone mourning dove) taking a post-winter bath. Bluebirds are nesting in the bluebird house. The upland chorus frogs are looking for love again—they’ve been sounding off for the past two nights. Spring is coming.

Monday and Other Gifts

I am the early riser around our house. I am used to the quiet of just me and the dog, as I do my morning disciplines (or not), eat breakfast, read the daily comics (and just enough news to keep me reasonably abreast but not too depressed), walk the dog, etc.

A few times a year, I wake to find Nancy already up. And whatever it was that got her up early usually has her wired for activity. Yesterday was one of those. I woke to lights on all over the house. She had unloaded, reloaded, and started the dishwasher; scrubbed the kitchen counters; attended the laundry. She was on a tidying and organizing mission that took her from room to room, moving stuff from where it was to where it should be. And she had just discovered water coming from under the fridge. Did I mention it was a Monday?

And then, against expectations, I was gifted—graced with a pause, a reset, a take-a-deep-breath-and-count-to-ten. Against expectations, I didn’t lash out (and only turned sullen for a minute). The water problem was not serious. Nancy sensed that I needed some quiet time and confined her tidying to one part of the house while I made a pot of coffee and retreated to a writing corner with my mug and journal.

My new year seems full of graces and gifts. The projects and tasks on my plate excite me with their challenges; it is a gift to enjoy my work. My family and I are healthy and happy; it is a gift. Nancy and I are scheming and dreaming about the future; it is a gift. Today we scrapped our separate plans and spent much of the day together, taking trash to the dump, searching for my lost keys—the kinds of things old married folks do for excitement. It was a gift.

Customer service has a bad reputation, yet I have had two recent customer service experiences that left me satisfied, even more than satisfied. It was a gift, and I extend kudos to Sears and Home Depot.

It is a gift, I think, when we see and accept the gifts all around us. My Monday was a gift. I hope yours was, too.

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.

Snow Day Redux

It’s a snowy day, the first of the season. I was up early, doing my morning pages and watching the snow and wondering if I’d venture out for my usual Wednesday morning men’s group session. And then I remembered another snowy day, almost 18 years ago. I dug out what I’d written that day. So much changes over two decades, but then again, not much.

Snow Day

At 5 am, the rain is laced with sleet.  On a normal day, I treasure the stillness and solitude of 5 am.  I’ve been known to choke the pendulum on the Regulator clock into silence and pull the plug on our tabletop fountain, their tick, tock, drip, and splash too garish in the early morning calm; I’ve strained to hear tranquil rain above the hum of refrigerator in the next room and jetliner six miles up.  Today, with the weather on the fence, curiosity outweighs my need for solitude, and I admit muted TV weather watchers into my journaling and prayer time.  I watch the growing list of school closings and let Doppler images compete with Nehemiah, fasting in captivity, mourning his beloved Jerusalem.  I contemplate how I will spend the day, if the weather breaks my way.

By 6:30, rain and sleet give way to snow, and white accumulates on lawn and street.  Local schools are closed, and I intercept my teenage son on his way to the shower.  I go back to bed.  Snow is a gift, not least for the chance of extra sleep.

At 8, I wake again.  The world is white—every trunk and branch and twig.  My youngest is awake.  He turns four today and already has two unplanned presents: a snow day, and a big brother to share it with.  If he were older and self-entertaining, my love and I might stay in bed till noon.  I fantasize, but not for long.

How will I spend this snow day?  I could brave the slippery streets and clump around the office in hiking boots and jeans and bulky sweater, one of the male majority who consider ourselves essential to the economy and our driving skills well above average.  I could stay home and chafe at the inconvenience, trapped in childcare and domesticity.  I’ve done both.

Or I can accept this day as a gift, six-pointed grace.  I call the office and say I’m staying home.  “Call if you need me.”  They won’t, and I won’t mind.

In all honesty, I should confess that I’m underemployed right now and would have had to take a day or so off anyway.  But I’d stay home even if it were a busy week.

The snow took out a pine tree, laid it neatly on the path that switchbacks down to the kids’ fort.  Most of the pines in my oak woods lean and droop on a good day, and this giant’s snow heavy top got the better of its roots.  An oak, itself an affront to gravity leaning 40 degrees off plumb, snagged the top 15 feet off the pine on its way down.  That lethal widowmaker hangs 30 feet in the air, its 8” diameter butt-end a jagged warning flag of yellow against black bark, green needles, and gray sky.  Come spring, we’ll have to build a new stretch of trail through the poison ivy, briars, and deadfall.  Come spring, we’ll have muddy shoes and pants to clean as the four-year-old climbs the newly formed mountain of roots and explores the crater they once occupied.

The snow makes disappointing sledding.  We tromp through the woods to explore the downed tree, bombarded by soggy tufts of slush from the canopy.  Wet cold hands soon bring us inside.  We make cake and cookies for the birthday celebration.  I do a workout, some writing, some housework, enjoying the slow pace of a snow day.

I’ve had a lot of snow days in the past two years, though few with real snow.  Leave without pay.  Not enough work.  Days when I stayed home and played with my son or took him to the zoo.  Days when I painted the house.  Days when I wrote.  A long Gulf Coast vacation.

Those days are joy; I relish the re-creating freedom and opportunity.  Loss of income is a serious downside, to be sure.  But the nights of waking in dry-mouthed, heart-pounding fear of unemployment have been rare.  I more often feel on the threshold of something exciting.

Chronologically, I’m on the threshold of Modern Maturity, which will be arriving in my mailbox any day now.  But my snow days are not about withdrawal and winding down.  They are days of discovery—that I have creative gifts, healing gifts, spiritual gifts to be nurtured and used.

In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis says of his fellow bus travelers, “They were all fixed faces, full not of possibilities, but of impossibilities.”  That is the face I see in the mirror that scares and haunts me.  Gaunt, tight, sunken cheeked, steeled against the world, seeing only today and an endless string of todays.  

More than most, I’ve resisted change and run from risk.  Once I wore a mustache for 21 years; having grown it to spite my father, I forgot what I looked like underneath and couldn’t make the leap to rediscover myself or him.  I count my life as two decades of childhood, two of stagnation, and one of belated climbing out of ruts.  Snow days are for climbing out of ruts.

And what of my next decade?  Where will it take me?  Patching up my dis-integrated life is a priority.  I am tired of this piecemeal life in which the way I earn a living interferes with the way I find fulfillment.  With Frost, “My goal in living is to unite my avocation and my vocation…”  To write, to serve and heal hurt children, to love, to worship and pray—that is the description of my dream vocation.  Snow days are experiments and practice for my next career, whose outlines I barely discern and whose details I have not yet imagined.

The next day, streets are clear, schools open, and life back to routine.  In separate casual conversations, two people I barely know ask if I made it in to work the day before.  The first seems shocked and dismayed when I say I could have, but didn’t; with the precision of a practiced commuter, she details for me her route, the road conditions, and just how many extra minutes her trip had taken.  The other, like me, had voluntarily stayed home and enjoyed every minute.  Her face is all smile as she recounts telling her husband she might just quit work and stay home for good.  Yeah!

A Reading Fast

For a variety of reasons, I have an uncommonly high stack of books and magazines waiting to be read. All recent acquisitions, all personal choices I look forward to savoring. And it’s the perfect time of year to spend days in a good book. Weather is iffy, garden is sleeping, and holidays are for kicking back.

What timing, then, to be assigned a week of no reading! No books, no magazines, no morning paper. No NPR. No books on tape or listening to the news.

“If you feel stuck in your life or in your art, few jump starts are more effective than a week of reading deprivation.” So says Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way. I had been following her program for a few weeks, and came onto this assignment just as Christmas preparation was settling down enough for me to tackle my book pile.

Why reading deprivation? “The nasty bottom line is this: sooner or later, if you are not reading, you will run out of work and be forced to play.” Or, I would add, you will run out of excuses not to write and be forced to “show up at the page.” Play, dream, refill the creative well from which you draw. And then show up at the page, or the canvas, or the forge.

Reading deprivation is a form of fasting. I recall that Lauren Winner (Girl Meets God) describes a reading fast assigned to her one Lent. Six weeks is a long time; surely I can do a week.

On Sunday, Deacon John came down from the pulpit during his sermon on gratitude and wandered the aisle to give parishioners the opportunity to express their gratitudes. Grandchildren, children, spouses, the church community or particular members of it. As I listened to, and seconded, these and others, I was trying to articulate another thought. Only later did I get the words in place. One of the post-eucharistic prayers has the clause, “send us out to do the work you have given us to do.” I am grateful for that work, in all its many forms.

I will not try to explain the “how” of The Artist’s Way (TAW). I must try, however, to explain the “why.” Because if you go to the website, you will come away with the mistaken impression that TAW is another self-help program—a formula for pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps of will and determination. But if you read the book carefully, you will see that the program and its disciplines are founded not on will but on submission; on a belief that creativity is an ongoing act by the Creator, and that we are, once the blocks are cleared away, participants in this creative process. The disciplines—morning pages and artist dates and reading deprivation—like any spiritual disciplines, help to place us in the way of grace so that we can recognize and respond to it. They open us up so that we become channels for God’s creativity to flow through us.

And with that understanding of creativity, we see that it is not limited to “the creative arts.” This creative energy flows through all “the work you have given us to do.” Through my gardening and singing and child care. Through playing with my grandchildren, selecting Christmas gifts for my children, caring for an elderly parent. Through attending to the needs of my family and myself. Through housework and the work of being in relationship. Through improving this website and writing this blog.

So, how was my week of reading deprivation? I am happy to report that I only cheated a tiny bit; I took a few brief internet research excursions and glanced at a few headlines, but left my reading pile untouched and my news feeds unread. I did play; discovering some lovely music by local singer-songwriter, Jennifer Niceley. And I did “show up at the page” more often.  One prayer in the book goes, Great Creator, I will take care of the quantity, you take care of the quality.