Lightly Child, Lightly. (Part II)

5:05 am. Tuesday morning.

Mid-January, 40° F.  40° F, and Australia is burning.

Cabin is quiet, but for the heater humming, knocking down the chill.

Headlights illuminate I-95, dry road. 74 mph. Speed lane.  I pass Truckers on my right, a convoy racing to beat rush hour into Manhattan.  Google Maps updates arrival time in Midtown: 55 minutes.

I re-grip the steering wheel, shift in my seat, adjust the seat belt, uncomfortably snug across my lower belly.

Two nights before. At kitchen table. Fingers untie the bow, then move to the white wrapping paper covering the gift from the Chocolate Chalet.  Hand made chocolates, hand selected by a friend, a colleague, and her children. Milk Chocolate. Raspberry jelly. Cherry. Vanilla Creme. Dark Chocolate. Nut clusters.  I cordon off a Do Not Cross area around the table signalling My Box, My Chocolates, My Zone.

One night before. Monday Night. At kitchen table. With half of the chocolates remaining. I re-established my position, the cordoned off area, and went at it again.

And, there it goes. An entire box of chocolates in a span of a few minutes during back to back evenings, when the world stopped. No, Shoulder PainNo, Work. No, Brother Gone.

I step out of the car, hand the keys to the parking attendant, and walk.  Not to the office, it was early yet. But I walk down Broadway, with the lights beaming down from the buildings in Times Square.  A few morning walkers, and me.  And snippets of Renkl’s essay “After the Fall” drift in and out.

There’s no making peace with it.

There’s no closure.

You wear it under your clothes like a film.

Time claims you: your belly softens, your hair grays, the skin of your grief will loosen, soften, drape your hard bones.

The flowers turn their faces to your face.

Walk out into the springtime, and look: the birds welcome you with a chorus.


Notes:

  • Photo: Mine. Looking down Broadway in Times Square. Tuesday morning, January 14, 2019.
  • Post Inspiration: “This talk of making peace with it. Of feeling it and then finding a way through. Of closure. It’s all nonsense. Here is what no one told me about grief: you inhabit it like a skin. Everywhere you go, you wear grief under your clothes. Everything you see, you see through it, like a film. It is not a hidden hair shirt of suffering. It is only you, the thing you are, the cells that cling to each other in your shape, the muscles that are doing your work in the world. And like your other skin, your other eyes, your other muscles, it too will change in time. It will change so slowly you won’t even see it happening. No matter how you scrutinize it, no matter how you poke at it with a worried finger, you will not see it changing. Time claims you: your belly softens, your hair grays, the skin on the top of your hand goes loose as a grandmother’s, and the skin of your grief, too, will loosen, soften, forgive your sharp edges, drape your hard bones. You are waking into a new shape. You are waking into an old self. What I mean is, time offers your old self a new shape. What I mean is, you are the old, ungrieving you, and you are also the new, ruined you. You are both, and you will always be both. There is nothing to fear. There is nothing at all to fear. Walk out into the springtime, and look: the birds welcome you with a chorus. The flowers turn their faces to your face. The last of last year’s leaves, still damp in the shadows, smell ripe and faintly of fall.” ~ Margaret Renkl, from “After the Fall” in Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss (Milkweed Editions (July 9, 2019)
  • Post Title & Inspiration: Aldous Huxley: “It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.”

New Year

 

I pause to check the milkweed, and a caterpillar halts midbite, its face still lowered to the leaf.

I walk down my driveway at dusk, and the cottontail under the pine tree freezes, not a single twitch of ear or nose.

On the roadside, the doe stands immobile, as still as the trees that rise above her. My car passes; her soft nose doesn’t quiver. Her soft flanks don’t rise or fall. A current of air stirs only the hairs at the very tip of her tail.

I peek between the branches of the holly bush, and the redbird nestling looks straight at me, motionless, unblinking.

Every day the world is teaching me what I need to know to be in the world.

In the stir of too much motion:

Hold still.
Be quiet.
Listen.

~ Margaret Renkl, “Still” in Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss


Photo Credit

What if resting, all by itself, is the real act of holiness?

My great-grandmother was a lifelong Baptist who spent the last four decades of her life worshiping with the Methodists because by then there was only church left in that tiny farming community in Lower Alabama…She was so quiet in her convictions that I was 10 or 12 before I noticed that she went straight back to her room after church every Sunday. On other days, she was always busy — shelling peas or snapping beans, crocheting or quilting or sewing — but on Sunday her hands fell still, and her sewing machine sat silent. The foot-pedal Singer she’d ordered from a catalog sometime during the early 20th century was still in daily use until a few weeks before her death in 1982, but she never sewed on Sunday.

When I went looking for her help with a tatting project one Sunday afternoon, I found out why. Tatting is a kind of lace made of tiny knots tied in very fine string. The trick is to tie the right kind of knot without tangling the string into the wrong kind, but I had made so many of the wrong knots that I couldn’t even figure out how to unpick the tangle and start again. I found her sitting in a chair under the window, her Bible in her lap. The book was very old, with edges so worn they curved inward toward the pages, as soft as a puppy. I knocked on the open door. “Mother Ollie, can you help me with this?”

All these years later, I think about the heartache it must have cost my great-grandmother, the one whose bedroom I shared whenever the house was full, to disappoint a child she loved so much. But that day she could not help me with my needlework. “Not today, honey,” she said. “The Lord tells us not to work on the Sabbath.” And handwork, by definition, is work.

I’ve thought of that conversation many times over the years. Sunday has never been a day of rest for me. I’ve always used at least part of the day to catch up with work, with email, with the myriad responsibilities that fall to people in the sandwich generation. I don’t know anyone who takes Sunday off anymore. If we aren’t doing professional work, we’re doing the housework that won’t get done once we leave for work on Monday morning.

But it’s not as though the world stopped on Sunday in Lower Alabama, either. The crops — and the weeds — in my grandfather’s fields continued to grow, whatever the day. My grandmother still had papers to grade and lessons to plan. The peas in the bushel basket on the back porch would not shell and can themselves. Nevertheless, my people put their work aside on Sunday to nap on the daybed or sit on the porch and rock. They didn’t ask themselves, as I do, whether they could “afford” to rest. God obliged them to rest, and so they did.

There are many, many people for whom this kind of Sabbath is not an option. People who work double shifts — or double jobs — just to make ends meet, truly can’t afford to rest, but I could reorganize my life if I tried. I could focus on priorities, spend less time on things that matter little to me and make more time for those that matter most. Somehow I had simply reached the age of 57 without feeling any obligation to sit still.

That changed the day after my book tour ended last week. Possibly I am just too old to learn the art of solo travel: of lying in a different bed night after night and actually sleeping, of finding my way through new cities and new airport terminals. I love meeting book people with all my heart, but by the end of book tour all my body was in revolt.

I sat on the sofa with my laptop, planning to get started on the 90 million emails that had piled up in my absence, but instead I fell asleep. I tried the wing chair next to the sofa with no better results. When I found myself looking at the one clear spot on my desk as a good place to lay my head, I gave up and went back to bed, rousing myself barely in time for supper. Then I slept 11 hours more.

Nothing in the third commandment identifies which day of the week should be the Sabbath. It doesn’t even mention the need to attend church. Its chief requirement is to rest. “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy,” reads Mother Ollie’s Bible. “Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work.”

Reading those verses again made me wonder: What if resting, all by itself, is the real act of holiness? What if honoring the gift of our only life in this gorgeous world means taking time every week to slow down? To sleep? To breathe? The world has never needed us more than it needs us now, but we can’t be of much use to it if we remain in a perpetual state of exhaustion and despair.

The next day, I didn’t even try to work. I took a walk around Nashville’s Radnor Lake, the best possible way to celebrate a day of rest. The temperatures here have finally dropped, the rains have finally come, and Middle Tennessee is now serving up one fine October day after another.

At Radnor, the beauty-berries were gleaming in all their purple ripeness, and the asters and the snakeroots were still in bloom. Behind its mother, a fawn was foraging, its springtime spots just beginning to fade. A great blue heron was standing on a downed tree at the edge of the water, preening each damp, curling feather and sorting it into place. A fallen log just off the trail boasted a glorious crop of chicken-of-the-woods, and the seedpods of the redbud trees were ripe and ready to burst. At the lake’s edge, the sound of a lone cricket rose up from the skein of vegetation next to one of the overlooks. Its song was as beautiful and as heart-lifting as any hymn.

~ Margaret Renkl, from “What if resting, all by itself, is the real act of holiness?” (NY Times, October 21, 2019)


Photo: Radnor Lake State Park in Tennessee by Michael Hicks

Riding Metro North. With ‘My’ Little Bird.

So, let’s back up the bus a bit and set this up.  It was a New Year post titled What’s Your Spirit Bird where Margaret Renkl explains that “There’s a New Year’s tradition among bird-watchers: The first bird you see on New Year’s Day is your theme bird for the year. Your spirit bird.” 

So, I’ve seen many birds since Jan 1, but not my bird. Not the right bird. And I don’t want to hear from you rule-sticklers that it’s not keeping with the “first” bird rule.

And the mind slips off the rails to a rabbit trail in Gail Honeyman’s” Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine: “I don’t need anyone else — there’s no big hole in my life, no missing part of my own particular puzzle. I am a self-contained entity. That’s what I’ve always told myself, at any rate.” No Hugely Holes. Not Bigly anyway. Trump’s infiltrating the mind. God, I do have problems. Bigly problems. OMG. Help me.

Monday, was, a long day. 7am flight to Dallas. 4 hour flight. 5 hours on ground. 4 hour flight back.  4 hours of sleep. (I don’t know if this math adds up. Who cares?)

And then, it’s Tuesday. I’m sitting in the warming hut waiting for a off-peak 10:00 am train to Grand Central. Light snow is falling.  Darien Schools have closed for the day. 2-3 inches, and the world stops these days. (When I was young, I used to walk to school in 2 feet of snow – I’m sure, it was in bare feet, I was that tough.  Snow days? WTH is that? The world has gotten soft.)

I shift on the steel bench, the train is scheduled to arrive in 4 minutes. I flip through my messages. And out of the corner of my eye on the ground in front of me is movement.

I lift my head.

And there she is. Has to be she. Just has to be.

Sparrow. Fluffy. Furry. Staring at me. Me staring at her. Spirit Bird? You? [Read more…]

What’s Your Spirit Bird?

 

I sit at the kitchen table preparing to read the NY Times. I separate the front section from the rest of the paper, and then pause.

I get up, go to the fridge and grab the remains of yesterday’s leftovers.

I turn to the Opinion Pages, my first stop, and scan the titles. My eyes spot an essay by Margaret Renkl.  I’m a fan-boy of Margarets. I see that her piece is titled “Spring is Coming“…well that’s a bit aggressive on January 5th, no Margaret? 

I read on.

“There’s a New Year’s tradition among bird-watchers: The first bird you see on New Year’s Day is your theme bird for the year. Your spirit bird, the bird that sets the tone for your encounters with the world and with others, the bird that guides your heart and your imagination in the coming year. It’s hardly a serious ornithological exploration, but there are plenty of birders who will wake before dawn anyway, no matter how late they stayed up on New Year’s Eve. They will drive off to some wild place teeming with avian life, all to increase the sunrise odds of seeing a truly amazing first bird. Who wouldn’t love to be matched for a year to the spirit of the snowy owl? What a gift to be guided for 12 months by the soul of a Bohemian waxwing!”

I pause.

Yea, OK, it’s January 5th, it’s well beyond New Year’s Day but there’s no reason I can’t find my bird now. I need my spirit bird Now.

I stop nibbling on my sandwich. Get up. Step out the back door, watch, and listen.

Silence.

I wait a few moments longer, in my short sleeve t-shirt, in 38° F temperatures.

Nothing. 

Perhaps some encouragement. Come on Red! Where’s that Red Cardinal? There are four bird feeders in the backyard. All hang on their poles silently. No breeze. They don’t swing. They are Still.

Nothing.

I step back into the house, pull the sliding door closed, and finish up Margaret’s essay.

No Bird. Wonder what that means.

I reach for the remaining quarter of my sandwich, and look down…

Chicken Sandwich…

What a gift to be guided for 12 months by the soul of a Bohemian waxwing!


Photo: Ostdrossel

Truth

A dog loves a person the way people love each other only while in the grip of new love: with intense, unwavering focus, attentive to every move the beloved makes, unaware of imperfections, desiring little more than to be close, to be entwined, to touch and touch and touch.

Margaret Renkl, from What it Means to Be Loved by a Dog (NY Times, June 18, 2018)

 


Photo: (via newthom)

It’s Thanksgiving. Come On Home.

I would be spending Thanksgiving in Philadelphia, a thousand miles from home…“I don’t think I can stand it here,” I said during the weekly call to my parents that Sunday. “I don’t know if I can do this.”

“Just come home,” my father said. I was crying by then. “It’s too late,” I said. “It’s way too late.”

“You can always come home, Sweet,” he said…

Those were words of loving reassurance from a parent to his child, a reminder that as long as he and my mother were alive, there would always be a place in the world for me, a place where I would always belong, even if I didn’t always believe I belonged there.

But I wonder now, three decades later, whether my father’s words were more than a reminder of my everlasting place in the family. I wonder now whether they were also an expression of his own longing for the days when all his chicks were still in the nest, when the circle was still closed and the family he and my mother had made was complete. We were an uncommonly close family, and I was the first child to leave home. But I gave no thought to my parents’ own loneliness as they pulled away from the curb in front of my apartment in Philadelphia, an empty U-Haul rattling behind Dad’s ancient panel van, for the drive back to Alabama without me.

I gave no thought to it then, but I think of it all the time now. My youngest child left for college in August, and this house has never seemed so empty. It’s not actually empty. My husband is still here, and my father-in-law still comes over for supper most nights. Because we have a big extended family and friends often passing through on their way somewhere else, hardly a week goes by without guests in our guest room. Last summer, anticipating my own sadness once our sons were at school, I put out the word in our neighborhood that I was happy to be a backup car pool driver or homework wrangler, but the presence of borrowed children in this house, though joyful, is also an aching reminder of the years gone by with my own.

No matter how full my life is with marriage and work and relatives and friends and the cares of citizenship in a struggling world, I miss my children. Every day, I miss my children, and as I wait for them to come home for Thanksgiving, I think of my father’s words across a bad landline connection in 1984 that reached my homesick heart in cold Philadelphia. I remember the 26-hour bus ride into the heart of Greyhound darkness that followed, a desperate journey that got me home in time for the squash casserole and the cranberry relish, and I hope my sons know now as surely as I knew it then, as surely as I have known it my entire life: Whatever happens, they can always come home. They can always, always come on home.

~ , excerpts from “It’s Thanksgiving. Come On Home.” (The New York Times, Nov 22, 2017)


Notes: Essay – Thank you Rachel. Illustration – Pinterest

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