Enfold Yourself in Small Comforts

The scent of sun-dried sheets fresh off the clothesline can completely change my state of mind. Like the sense of well-being that comes over me when a song from my youth is playing on the radio, the smell of line-dried sheets takes me home to Alabama, back to a time when all my beloved elders were still alive, still humming as they shook out a wad of damp bedsheets and pinned them to the line.

This summer I have repeatedly washed not just our sheets but also our 20-year-old matelassé coverlet, whose scalloped edges are now beginning to fray. I have washed the dust ruffle for possibly the first time in its entire existence. Once the linens are reassembled, I crawl between the sheets, breathe in, and feel the muscles across the top of my back begin to loosen. As my friend Serenity’s mother is fond of saying, “There are very few problems in this world that putting clean sheets on the bed won’t improve, even if just a little bit.”

These days it’s truly just a little bit, even when the clean sheets have been dried on a clothesline in the bright summer sun. Everyone I know is either suffering terribly or terribly worried about someone who is suffering. When will they ever find work? What if they get sick at work and can’t afford to take time off? What if they bring the virus home to the people they love? How will they work and also home-school their children? Will their parents die of the coronavirus? Will their parents die of loneliness before they can die of the coronavirus?

For months now, all my phone calls and texts and emails have begun, “How are you, really?” or “How is…?” Sometimes I’m the one who’s asking and sometimes I’m the one who’s being asked, but every exchange begins the same way.

Without even thinking about why, I engage in useless compensation. Bringing a few swallowtail caterpillars inside to save them from the red wasps. Repotting eight years’ worth of Mother’s Day orchids. Buying mask after mask, as though this color or this style or this pattern will somehow protect me and those I love. I am getting through these days primarily by way of magical thinking, and sheets billowing on a hot August wind are my talismans against fear and loss.

In June, after 25 years in this house, my husband set to work on our 70-year-old kitchen cabinets, chiseling out layers of paint, planing and sanding warped edges. When he was finished, the cabinet doors would close all the way, and stay closed, for the first time in decades. If you ask him why he went to all this trouble, he has no explanation beyond the obvious: For 25 years it needed to be done, and so he finally did it.

But I think it’s more than that. I think he was worrying about his lonesome father, quarantined in an efficiency apartment, and that’s why he fixed those cupboard doors. He was worrying about our oldest son’s pandemic wedding and our middle son’s new job as an essential worker. He was worrying about whether our youngest son’s university would make the inevitable decision to hold classes online before we had to sign a yearlong lease for an apartment our son might never set foot in. My husband can’t control any of those things, much less cure Covid-19, but he can by God make the kitchen cabinets stop flying open and knocking us in the head while we cook.

The other day, I posted a picture on Facebook of our masks drying on the clothesline. “At some point I’m going to have to stop buying masks with flowers on them,” I wrote. “I don’t know why I keep thinking a new mask with flowers on it will solve everything, but I keep thinking it anyway.”

My friends began to chime in. “In case you are wondering, ice cream doesn’t seem to solve anything either, but I’m still collecting data,” my friend Noni wrote. “I confess I have not picked up an iron in years, but I now iron our masks each week,” wrote Tina. “It’s important to get the pleats just right. For some reason.”

We know the reason. In Margaret Atwood’s 1969 debut novel, “The Edible Woman,” a character named Duncan copes with chaos by ironing: “I like flattening things out, getting rid of the wrinkles, it gives me something to do with my hands,” he says.

A few days later I was still thinking about Tina ironing those masks, so I asked, outright, what my Facebook friends are doing to manage their own anxieties. When I checked back a few hours later, there were more than 100 comments, and every one of them was a lesson, or at least a needed reminder, for me.

My friends are giving themselves difficult and absorbing assignments: reading classic novels, learning a new language or a challenging song on the guitar, working complicated puzzles. “I am doing so many puzzles because it feels good to put something back together again,” my friend Erica wrote.

They are throwing themselves into the domestic arts: preparing complex meals, learning to make paper flowers and, yes, ironing. “I’ve been ironing my pillowcases,” wrote Elizabeth. “They feel so crisp and cool on my poor menopausal cheeks.”

They are putting in a garden, in the suburban backyard or on the city balcony. They are feeding the birds and sometimes the turtles, rescuing orphaned opossums, walking in the woods. They are sitting on the porch — just sitting there, listening. At night they are going outside to look at the stars.

They are taking care of others — adopting puppies and lonely neighbors, coaching elderly aspiring writers via Zoom, breaking their own rules against pets in bed, taking the time to get to know their U.S. Mail carriers. They are meeting friends — outdoors and from a safe distance — and making a pact to talk about anything but the coronavirus. They are reveling in the slower pace of family life and falling in love with their partners all over again. My sister, who still lives in Alabama, is sending boxes of Chilton County peaches to faraway friends who have never before experienced the taste of heaven.

Tears welled up as I read their stories, and by the time I’d reached the end, I was openly weeping. It felt like nothing less than a blessing, in this hurt and hurtful time, to remember how creative human beings can be, how tender and how kind.

We may be in the middle of a story we don’t know how will end, or even whether it will end, but we are not helpless characters created and directed by an unseen novelist. We have the power, even in this Age of Anxiety, to enfold ourselves in small comforts, in the joy of tiny pleasures. We can walk out into the dark and look up at the sky. We can remind ourselves that the universe is so much bigger than this fretful, feverish world, and it is still expanding. And still filled with stars.

—  Margaret Renkl, “A Reminder to Enfold Yourself in Small Comforts” (NY Times, August 24, 2020)

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

There’s another world that has always existed both apart from and alongside civilization. While I was sick it changed, too, in the age-old turning of the earth itself. By the time I could walk outside again, springtime had come to Tennessee.

In our yard there are violets and spring beauties and stickywillys and buttercups. The invasive but lovely deadnettle has turned the ditch next to our house into a cascading drift of purple. Every year it reminds me of Alice Walker’s words: “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” Out in the woods, the trout lilies are opening near toadshade and bloodroot and mayapple, all of them reaching up from the cold soil to bloom in the brief sunlight of early spring, before the trees leaf out and the forest overstory draws in all the available light.

For now, the limbs are still bare, but the songbirds have registered the mild light, as well, and their courtship season has begun. The television may be full of terror, and the terror may be growing with every passing hour, but the trees are full of music. The normally cacophonous blue jays are singing their tender whisper song, and the quarrelsome beeping of the Carolina chickadee has been transformed into a glorious four-note song of love. Birdy-birdy-birdy, the cardinal sings. Birdy-birdy-birdy-birdy. He is serenading a female, and if you follow the song to its source you might be lucky enough to see him bringing his mate a seed or a grub, demonstrating his fitness as her partner. In the avian world, a grub is an engagement ring.

Alas for the poor grubs, and also for the earthworms struggling to the surface as they escape their tunnels inundated by spring rains. But pull up a weed from the wet soil of the water-drenched garden and smell the rich life the earthworm has left behind. Just a whiff of it will likely flood you with a feeling of well-being. The scent of freshly turned soil works on the human brain the same way antidepressants do.

Here is the alternate world we need right now, one that exists far beyond the impulse to scroll and scroll. The bluebird bringing pine straw to the nest box she has chosen in a sunny spot of the yard, like the chickadee bringing moss to the nest box under the trees, is doing her work with the urgency of the ages. She has no care for me at all. Even her watchful mate ignores me as I pull weeds in the flower bed beside our driveway.

The natural world’s perfect indifference has always been the best cure for my own anxieties. Every living thing — every bird and mammal and reptile and amphibian, every tree and shrub and flower and moss — is pursuing its own urgent purpose, a purpose that sets my own worries in a larger context. And the natural world is everywhere, not just on my half-acre lot in suburbia, and not just on my favorite trails at the local parks. You can find it during a walk on city streets and in the potted plants on city balconies. It’s in the branches of the sidewalk trees as they begin to split open and change the grayscape green. It’s in the sparrows and the starlings taking nesting materials into the cracks around the windows and doorways of commercial buildings. It’s in a sky full of drifting clouds, and in the wild geese crying as they fly.

I can scroll and worry indoors, or I can step outside and remember how it feels to be part of something larger, something timeless, a world that reaches beyond me and includes me too. The spring ephemerals have only the smallest window for blooming, and so they bloom when the sunlight reaches them. Once the forest becomes enveloped in green and the sunlight closes off again, they will wait for another year. Sunlight always returns the next year.

~ Margaret Renkl, from “The Beautiful World Beside the Broken One” (New York Times, March 23, 2020)


Photo of Bluebird: The Woodthrush Shop

Sunday Morning

The day after the waxwings appeared at my birdbath, I found one of them, its flock long gone, panting on the driveway below a corner of the house where two windows meet and form a mirage of trees and distances. When I stooped to look at the bird, it lay there quietly. Though I could see no sign of injury, I knew it must be grievously hurt to sit so still as I gently cupped my hands around it to move it to a safer place in the yard. It made a listless effort to peck at my thumb, but it didn’t struggle at all when my fingers closed around its wings, and I didn’t know what to do. So much beauty is not meant to be held in human hands.

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


Photo: Livescience.com

One Tiny Beautiful Thing

Paying attention to what is happening in Washington is a form of self-torment so reality altering that it should be regulated as a Schedule IV drug. I pay attention because that’s what responsible people do, but I sometimes wonder how much longer I can continue to follow the national news and not descend into a kind of despair that might as well be called madness. Already there are days when I’m one click away from becoming Lear on the heath, raging into the storm. There are days when it feels like the apocalypse is already here.

Except it isn’t, not really. Not yet. One day when the relentless rains let up for a bit, I went to the park an hour before sunset to walk on the muddy trails and take a break from the bad news. The woods were as lovely as they ever are after a rain: the creeks full of rushing water, the gray bark of the fallen trees slick with moss. Above the trail, the limbs of the living trees creaked in the rising wind, the kind of sound that makes your heart ache for reasons too far beyond words to explain. Though the forest understory is already beginning to green up, weeks too soon, the towhees scratching for insects stirring in what’s left of last fall’s leaves were not in any way sorry about the early arrival of spring.

A few hundred yards on, my eyes caught on a tree I hadn’t noticed when I was walking in the other direction. About seven feet up the trunk was a knothole, a place where a limb had long ago broken off and let water in to rot the wood. Perhaps a woodpecker had helped to deepen it, too, and given the water more purchase over time. The hole was small, a dark grotto in the thickly grooved bark of the stalwart oak, a hiding place that reached far into the mass of that old tree, and the failing light deepened its darkness. Who knows how many miniature woodland creatures have crept into its crevice over the years to nest, to shelter from the wind and rain, to hide from predators — or to wait for prey.

But a creature lurking inside it is not what singled this knothole out among the hundreds, even thousands, I had passed on the path as night came on. What caught my eye was a cluster of tiny seedlings colored the bright new green of springtime, so bright it seemed to glow in the gloaming. The tender plants were growing in the loam inside the knothole. Far above the ground, a hole made by decay in a living tree had become a cold frame, a natural greenhouse that lets in light and keeps out frost. Life in death in life…

Instead of giving up something for Lent, I’m planning to make a heartfelt offering. In times like these, it makes more sense to seek out daily causes for praise than daily reminders of lack. So here is my resolution: to find as many ordinary miracles as a waterlogged winter can put forth, as many resurrections as an eerily early springtime will allow. Tiny beautiful things are bursting forth in the darkest places, in the smallest nooks and deepest cracks of the hidden world, and I am going to keep looking every single day until I find one.

~ Margaret Renkl, from “One Tiny Beautiful Thing” (NY Times, Feb 23, 2020)


Photo: Mohan Bhat

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)

%d bloggers like this: