Do not tax yourself with forethought of grief

The world has been different now for about 7 weeks. I remember clearly that last pizza and beer I had, after climbing off a mountain with a friend, as the last day of the world as it was. The next day, with school cancelled, was he first day of the world as it currently is. I read online a statement that Coronavirus completely destroys some folks, while leaving others almost completely unscathed. I am so aware that I am in that latter category. My job remains secure (if requiring plenty of time from me). My home is full of food. My children are well (if at risk of becoming inert elements in front of their computers). My family is all still healthy. So far, I’ve escaped even serious inconvenience.

But even so, the days have been hard. I find that every Monday is worse than the last, attempting to marshall my resources to teach my children, do my job, keep the house, cook the dinner, maintain my relationships. I almost didn’t make it through last Monday, and I am staring at dread with tomorrow morning. (I have a plan. It includes wearing a dress and makeup, in a desperate attempt to channel my inner professional.) A walk in the forest involves people edging to the side of the path, as though you might be carrying some awful, transmissible disease. The main street is full of signs either optimistically promising better days to come, or saying “Temporaly closed” (sic) – a sign becoming faded in the strengthening sunlight. Life is feeling harder every day, as supplies of TP and flour dwindle, and the walls of my home crush me.

Still, there is the great blessing of New England. This has been a long, cold, rainy spring. It seems like those are particularly common after mild winters. We’ve had our fair share of spring snow and rain and sleet and misery. We’ve had weeks where it didn’t break 50. It’s been a great boon to our amphibian population, as every creek and rill and vernal pool is full to the brim of cold water.

Bleeding heart

But this weekend, oh!! This weekend was the glorious weekend of spring that doesn’t come just once a year in New England, it comes perhaps once a decade. The skies were blue, the sun was strong. The colors were all new-formed, as though God himself had just dreampt them up. Every color imaginable is suddenly bursting forth into joyous profusion, looking new washed and newly painted on the world. We are at just the tipping point between daffodil and forsythia, into tulip and, well, everything. Even the houses look jollier in the bright sun, which portends warmth and freedom and backyards in a way that is utterly and inescapably charming to all those of us who have been practically housebound since October. There seem to be few consolations in this newly-isolate world, but oh. Spring in New England is still one of them.

Confession: this man has brought me breakfast in bed nearly every day for those 6 weeks

Not being a fool, I early resolved that my plan for this weekend was to spend as much of it as was humanly possible outdoors. Given that it’s nearly 11 and I’m still by a backyard fire, I declare said plan fulsomely accomplished. Usually weekends like this would be subject to the whim of the calendar: had I already committed myself? Was it to something outdoorsy? But yesterday I woke to a clean slate of a plan, and (after the delicious breakfast prepared for my by my incredibly loving husband) I started with a five mile run along the bike way that I played a small part in ensuring was here for us, now, when we need it most. The Aberjona and Sweetwater were both running high along their banks, and the trail was crowded with folks enjoying the finest weather we’ve seen in six months. Most of them, including me, were wearing masks.

In glorious fashion, the day unfolded with sleepy hammock naps, letters to friends, and meals shared with my beloved family. I have always said that I cannot relax at home, because there is too much to do. But honestly, most of it has now been done so for the first time in ever so long, I find myself able to just … be. Here. In this 10th of an acre that is my homestead. I spent the whole day happy. I definitely interrogated myself several times over this. The world is in tumult. So many have died. So many have suffered. There is more to come. How dare, HOW DARE I be happy? It isn’t fair that I be happy when so many are caught in sorrow, grief, fear and distress. That is all, unarguably, true. But the thing I’ve wanted to tell you, across many failed blog posts, is that your suffering does not reduce the suffering of others. So if you have a choice between suffering and not suffering, do not suffer.

I have been struck by the poem, “The Peace of Wild Things” since it arrived as the answer to an advent Google search I initiated looking for poems of peace. It is strong enough that many of the lines can speak to you. But the ones that have slayed me – stopped me in my tracks – during this pandemic period are:

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief.

Resident baby bunny

On this most beautiful day of spring, I find myself challenged by the question: will I tax this day to neutrality by forethought of grief (or by focus on the unfairness of my joy?)? Or will I let go. Will I come into the peace of the wild things and take this moment as it is, built on a complex scaffold but for a moment, full of joy? I think of the baby bunny who has taken residence under my porch, and who nibbles on dandylions in my back yard. Do I see that creature as a pestilence-spreading eater of bulbs, destined to destroy gardens before falling prey to the hawks and foxes that prowl my suburban neighborhood? Or do I just enjoy the meek cuteness of its ears, now, when it is a baby and before its destiny is fulfilled for food or procreation? Do I look towards all the consequences of rabbit-incarnate, or do I just smile across baby-bunny.

For the bunny, my decision does not matter (assuming I am unwilling to poison his bulb-eating self). This Coney will live to be a great big jackrabbit, or it will fall food to yet wilder animals. It is not in my power to control. But what I can control is my joy of it, in this moment. I can choose to sit in companionable silence with my little Lagomorpha. Or I can choose to tax my life with the forethought of grief.

Communion under a dying plum

So I decided, in this one shining weekend, to enjoy it. To nap in a hammock tied to my dying plum tree, and not look at the blight. To build a fire of the wood I have and not consider the shortage at the hardware store. To serve communion to my husband from the glasses my father brought from Ethiopia more than fifty years ago, and not wonder when I would sit in a pew again to receive communion in a sanctuary. To look at bleeding heart with a full and joyful heart, and not wonder how soon it will be before my heart bleeds. To meet with my friends through the miracle of technology, and not wait until we can be together again in truth.

What would you do differently, if you chose not to tax your heart in forethought of grief? What joy is there for you in the time, in this moment? In an era of grief, doubt, uncertainty and loss, where is it possible for you to find peace?

My mind was filled with wonder

I’ve been joking at work lately that I need an upgrade to my short term memory. I’m really good at writing things down, which has been even more critical lately since I struggle to remember the details of meetings I had just a week or two prior – there are so many incoming data pieces, decisions, challenges and threads of conversation. My home life is just as complicated and interwoven. I rarely drop balls and I usually try to be as reliable as sunrise, but before I left I failed to communicate to my husband that a) I had people ready to take our farm share b) he needed to feed the neighbor’s guinea pig. (You’ll all be happy to hear that Nova was just fine, since it turned out our neighbor’s plans had changed.) I find such lapses in myself deeply disturbing. There are many things and people that rely on my reliability.

When I landed in Washington for a week and a half of desperately needed vacation, I felt a great burden temporarily lifted. For a few days, I was beholden to no one but myself, responsible for nothing but myself. Of course, myself had planned a rather rigorous agenda of activities, but the price of failure was only my own disappointment.

My mountain

That first day we landed, tired and thinly spread, I went by myself up the winding mountain roads to Longmire to stake my claim on a piece of the mountain for two nights. And I found myself considering how my wonder and awe had been eroded over the years. Here I was, three thousand miles from the point I had awoken in the morning. Here I was, in the home of my heart looking at the great giant trees who have stood sentinel for longer than the age of a civilization. Here I was, on the exposed bones of a giant volcano fire-God, now sleepily wreathed in ice. And where was my mind and heart? Everywhere but here. I watched my attention flitter and fly like the most frivolous child, returning not to amazement, awe and gratidutude, but rather to the mundane, mean and platitude.

I thought about how my mind used to be, as a kid. I know that I didn’t spend as much time in nature as my memory and stories would make it out to be. But yet. I also know how it feels to break a dandylion stem, and have the slick mucilagenous ichor of that hollow frame slide beneath my fingers. I know the best way to walk only moderately sliced into a blackberry bramble to attain the ripest fruits. I know not only how the underside of a sword fern looks, but how its octopus-sucker spores feel rough and unmoving to the touch. And I know that in comparison to the high-growing bracken fern, sometimes taller than my youthful head, hiding dens of small girls and deer under shadowing leaves. When I was young, I really saw. And I was awed and amazed that I was *here* and got to see *this*.

For years coming home, my passions for place and awe would fly home with me – like an ancient Icarus able to take wings and fly across the clouds with a pace nearly as fast as the setting sun t chased. I was back. I was home. Here was that one Starbucks I’d loved as a girl. Here the view of Mt. Rainier that had stricken my heart with its beauty. But in recent years, that sense of wonder has dimmed. I’ve chased sunset and sunrise across the continent too many times to be impressed with it anymore. I’ve risen on one continent to sleep on another a few too many times. There are too many Starbucks, and their sugary drinks are less interesting to me. The mountain is hard to see in this hazy, fire-strewn sky.

And this year, for the first time, I saw that distance and lack of awe and was greatly grieved by it. There is no gain to such a loss of marvel.

As a parent, I’m a huge proponent of the “growth mentality” – which echoes that ancient thought that we are less who we are born to be and more who we choose to be. Driving highway 12 past the firs and vine maples, I made and affirmed my decision to be a person who notices. A person who sees things. And a person who marvels at their beauty.

By the time I got to Longmire, I had stilled my attention enough and awoken my wonder sufficiently that the rangers asked if I was ok. Something of it was showing on my face, I think. With a back country permit in hand, I slowly slowly walked the Path of Shadows, to remind myself. I sat still and looked at the lovely framing of Mt. Rainier by Rampart Ridge – made of the volcanic floes stopped by glacial ice. I smelled the sulfur of the hotsprings. I touched the broad needles of the fir with familiar fingers. I contemplated the daytime darkness of the preserved cabin. I marveled at the craftsmanship still on display in the round river stones used to for the wells – themselves harkening back two thousand years to Greek baths. I listened to silence, and I made the silence play in my head.

That lonesome valley

Two mornings later I awoke late and gazed at the most glorious beauty on my way to the high latrine. I looked over this mountain valley in the few glorious weeks in which it is open and unsnowed and covered by flowers. In that entire valley were only two humans living, myself and my son. And my heart was filled with wonder. He walked with me around that lake, and we sat on the far side, perched on warm rocks above the clearest of mountain pools. He told me his favorite hymn, which is also mine. And we sang it together. And my heart was filled with love and awe.

The very rock upon which we sang

I am down off that mountain now. Into the clarity and quiet of that mind, I have put in the highest art. I have filled my eyes, my ears and my mind with new materials (even as I have filled my lungs with smoke and my belly with good foods). Sitting under the ancient ponderosa pines near the babble of ash-filled Lithia Creek, I am readying myself to return to that world where my mind is too small to hold all it needs to hold, and my attention is bespoke by the employer who makes such cross-country jaunts possible in the first place.

As I go to close the book on my vacation, and lay down both the mountains and the Muir, I hold firm to the ground I have reclaimed. I will be and wish to be that person who notices, who marvels, who takes the time to see and know how astonishing and lovely this world is.

The living waters we drank

Peace & the Second Sunday in Advent

Today is the second Sunday in Advent. The four advent candles, for the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, stand for hope, peace, joy and love. Every week in this season of waiting we light another candle. The world gets a little brighter and we think on these things: what it is to hope, what a hope of peace looks like, how it is to feel joy, and the great love we believe God showed us in becoming human to be one of us.

Candles & LEDS - the oldest and newest light sources
Candles & LEDS – the oldest and newest light sources

This weekend my family prepared ourselves for Christmas. We selected the tree. We brought down the boxes of ornaments. We hung one advent calendar and filled a second one with Hershey’s Kisses. We played The Kingston Trio’s “Last Month of the Year” and Roger Whittaker’s Christmas Album. We told the children the stories of the ornaments as we hung them: the sad stories, the funny stories, the happy stories. We discussed optimal ornament hanging strategies, and enjoyed the new LED lights we got with purple instead of pink making the tree significantly less orangy this year than last year. We watched Scooby Doo in a fit of nostalgia brought on by Thane’s Scooby Doo ornament, and the children were shocked to discover that it is actually pretty good.

Decorator and decoratee
Decorator and decoratee

Our halls decked, Adam and I decamped to my holiday Christmas party where I got to sing on the stage at the House of Blues, which was something I didn’t know was on my bucket list until I was standing under the bright lights singing.

All dressed up with somewhere to go
All dressed up with somewhere to go

I love this time of year so much. And I think what I love most about it is that it’s a joyous contradiction. It’s the season of lights, but instead of bright 100 watt bulbs we light our homes with, with have tiny 13 lumen candleflames. It’s the season of warmth as we turn up collars and look to the first snow-commute-disaster of the year. (Tomorrow, according to one report I read!) It’s a time busy with parties and cookies and cards and caroling and…. but it’s also a time of year when we slow down a little. We sit a little and look at the lights. This year I’m feeling the magic of the season in full force. Perhaps it’s because this year for the first time my children are full collaborators in the creation and appreciation of the time apart. We shall see.

Peace is a rare commodity in this world. The world keeps throwing up sorrows. Just this week, one of my friends was dead for two hours when his heart stopped Thanksgiving night. And blocks from my work, in the blink of an eye sixty people became homeless as their Christmas trees went up in a grand conflagration. In Aleppo, the last voices of the crushed citizens are going silent. Where is the peace? And if I find it in the walls of my own house, with my family and my tree and my Christmas music, well… should I? What right do I have to peace when so many live without it?

But then we come back to that first candle. I still cannot believe that despite two hours without a pulse, my friend was saved. (He just posted a hilarious status update “In my defense, I was dead at the time.”) Through a miracle past knowing, no one was killed or seriously injured in a fire that called firefighters from 20 neighboring towns. There’s no silver lining for Aleppo, but there is a sliver of hope at Standing Rock, where the Army Corps has decided to find a safer route.

The peace we have comes from the hope, not from the existing perfection. And we look forward to joy – the rarest of emotions – and to love, the foundation stone for our lives.

A gift to be simple

A pretty accurate reflection of our Christmas tree

I remember very distinctly getting Christmas presents for my father. There was the year I got him the post-it-note paint brush. I went through a phase of chocolate-covered Cherries – the kind you get in the super market. My sister and I thought soap-on-a-rope to be the utmost in paternal gift-giving.

My husband has gone for about a week for a work conference that has kept him very busy. On my last night home alone with the boys, I figured it was a great time to pick up some Christmas presents for daddy from his boys, and to pick up a book for Grey’s class book swap, so I swung by The Book Oasis and told the boys to pick out a book for their father. (Sorry for ruining the surprise love! They’re both books. The only reason you will not know within minutes of seeing Thane exactly which books is because he can’t remember the name.)

We then stopped by the grocery store, where the boys begged for *their own* wrapping paper. In a moment of parental weakness, straight off the “yes you will eat fish for dinner” battle in the meat section, I bowed to popular sentiment.

When we got home, Grey set right to wrapping. Eschewing lame things like “advice” he set about wrapping his gift to his father. His eyes lit up with the thought of placing this little package under the tree, of what his dad would look like when he opened the package. All of a sudden, one measly package to his dad wasn’t nearly enough. He locked himself in his room and yelled at the top of his voice, “NO ONE COME IN HERE! I’M DOING SOMETHING SECRET!” Several packages were added to the tree before bedtime hit with full force. I had to put my down on “just one more present!” and tell him to get his rear into bed.

As it was, he presented me with an “early Christmas present” – a Lego tree with Data and Tiberius under it. Thane, meanwhile, was desperately casting around the house for anything that might be put into his father’s stocking: pieces of gum, random bits of candy, half-used notepads.

The moment when you realize that giving good gifts is possibly even better than getting good gifts is an awesome moment. Generosity, especially when you get to bask in the recipient’s enjoyment and approval, feels *really good*. For the little ones the fun of Christmas morning is getting to open presents. But for me, the great pleasure is watching them open their gifts. It is a fantastic thing to see my sons learn the joy of generosity.

Taped with LOVE

Lemonade

The young entreprenuer
The young entreprenuer

The news is always depressing, but it seems like it’s been even worse lately. On CNN yesterday, there were five stories above the fold about children who had been hurt, bodies found… horrible things. It makes me want to turn my eyes away from humanity.

Yesterday, a viral video of David Foster Wallace talking about the implacability of adult life crossed into my digital awareness. It is a good video, and it has some good insights about our choices, and the patterns of thought we fall into. But you can hear in it the overarching despair of someone struggling to see the good – even the made-up good – in humanity. It is hard to listen to this without remembering that David Foster Wallace died at his own hand, struggling to the end with a depression as implacable as a ninja assassin. He fought that suicide so long and so hard, and you can hear the fight in his words.

I watched that yesterday. Then I sat back and said to myself, “This is not my reality.” None of this incredibly depressing stuff is. Now, the bad parts of reality have gotten awfully close. The marathon bombings scattered pain to my right and to my left. There’s a guy who used to go to my son’s grade school who is fighting to keep one of his two legs. I’ve shared the story of my friend who ran towards the bombs. (In a surreal moment, she texted the other day asking if I wanted to go to the movies since she got some free tickets for being a first responder. Sadly, I couldn’t.)

But 98% of my life – perhaps more – is full of neat people who are nice, kind and friendly. That part of my reality crystallized for me the other day. Grey had a tough day at school, and I was working from home, so when I got a call saying that he had a tummy ache… well, I picked him up to let him have a quiet afternoon. The quiet bit lasted an hour or two, but then around 4:30 on a beautiful spring day, he decided he wanted to make a lemonade stand. He had done this last year, with varying degrees of success, but came back to the idea. He set up the table, made the signs, priced his offering (reasonably, as opposed to last year).

And they came. The mom in the van who said, “We have set up lemonade stands too, but we live on a cul-de-sac so they don’t usually go very well.” The older woman with lots of makeup and a nice car who talked to him with the yearning of a grandma who doesn’t see her grandkids often, and overpaid. The dad with his two boys in the car, on their way to go fishing. The neighbors, who see our sons as extensions of their own children. The young, tattooed couple walking by who were enthusiastically accosted, and who walked uphill two blocks to make a little kid’s day.

The kid netted $15 and grossed $10
The kid netted $15 and grossed $10

This random suburban sampling of humanity was kind and friendly. Almost all gave what was in their pocket, even if it was rather more than the price of a cup. Moreover, they gave encouragement, a smile and their support. No one stops at a lemonade stand because they are thirsty and pining for a cup of lemonade (although in point of fact, the best lemonade I’ve ever had was at a lemonade stand in Seattle). But lemonade stands do well because people are kind, and interested in each other, and generous. That is just as much “reality” – likely more so – than anything CNN is covering today.


It is one of my more pleasant chores to go through the pictures on my camera to upload them. I usually notify that vast cadre of people (all four of them!) that may be interested in such things here. To that effect, hey guys! I got the April pictures up! And it’s only May!

The Garden of Marriage

A one day marriage designation given by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
A one day marriage designation given by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts

This past weekend was full of the celebrations of love and marriage. On Saturday, I had a (likely!) once in a lifetime experience. Two of my dear friends announced their engagement last fall – to my delight. When they asked me if I would be willing to perform the ceremony of their wedding, I was even MORE delighted. I am ordained (as a Ruling Elder and a Deacon – for those of you who are Presbyterian Polity specialists and wanted to know. Of course, most people I know who are keenly interested in Presbyterian Polity are my family and my church – both of whom already know. I digress.) But the kind of ordination I have is to serve in specific ways (in the governance and service of a church) and they don’t count for doing weddings. So before I said yes, I asked my pastor if it was ok for me to perform a wedding. With his blessing (and letter of recommendation), it was full steam ahead!

Massachusetts has a neat program where once a year a person may petition for and recieve a license to perform exactly one wedding on one day for two people. You fill out a form between 6 months and 6 weeks ahead of time, including a letter of reference from someone whose marriage you are NOT performing. I was _very_ impressed by the Commonwealth’s handling of this: they communicated in a timely and useful way. They were clear about the requirements and steps. And they were very fast in getting my approval and letter.

Shiny certificate in hand, speech written, extremely-dfficult-to-shop-for-dress put on, I showed up at the Arabian Horse Inn in Sudbury two hours early, and with two of my three boys. Grey was the “ringleader” for the ceremony, so his presence was required. It was a stifling hot day – 93 degrees on our way in with very high humidity. We did a quick run through of the service, we lounged around, the bride and groom disappeared to get dressed and suddenly “Froggy Went a’Courtin'” was playing and a lovely pair was walking over the bridge to the service. With a deep breath I launched into the service.

It is a wonderful thing to be at the front because you can watch people’s faces as they see their son and daughter, their siblings, their dear friends joined to each other in marriage. All the faces in front of me reflected back joy from the faces of the two marriagees.I got to call my son forward to bring the rings (he actually got to carry the real things, and to keep the box afterwards). I spoke about my favorite metaphor for love in marriage – the garden. I pronounced them husband and wife. I told them to kiss each other. It was over in just the right amount of time, at which point I finally got to tear up myself.

There was joy, my friends. And then there was cheese, dinner and dancing. I even got to sign the marriage license, which is pretty cool. And Grey was PERFECTLY behaved. He made friends of the staff of the Inn, whom he talked into letting him ride on the tractor and mix the punch according to his own recipe. He was excellent.

We went home tired and satisfied that night. It was a great day.

Now all of you who know me well are wondering… where is your other son?

Well.

Six weeks ago or so I asked my friend and babysitter if she could take Thane basically all day on Saturday (given that schedule). She said she would and there was much rejoicing. I pointed out that if she wanted him at her house, that was perfectly reasonable and we could accommodate it. But then, two weeks ago while I was in Ashland, she called. “Hey, I was just calling because I’m going to be vacationing in Maine the weekend coming up.” At this point, I was lamenting in my mind and wondering what else I could do. She continued, “So I was wondering if you would mind if I brought Thane with me and kept him overnight at our beach house. You guys could come up on Sunday and go to the beach too.”

SCORE!!!!!!!

My sons took turns, the week before, being jealous of each other. “Why does Thane get to go with her for a sleepover?” “Why does Grey get to go to a wedding?” but in the end each kid went joyfully to their special event. Sunday morning – at a reasonable hour – we got dressed and drove up to Maine. After the application of some sunscreen (subpar*, as it turned out) we all hit the beach. I got to do something that has been a fantasy of mine for six years…. go to the beach with a babysitter so I can swim with my husband. We had a BLAST in the waves at York beach while my kids had a blast with the babysitter-friend, who is one of the very few people in the world capable of convincing me that she’s really enjoying taking care of my kids. We chatted together. We lounged in the beach. Adam and I played this game where he would shoot the intertube I was in into a breaker and I would launch back at him. Superb.

Then we all went out for dinner, where I got an incredibly cheap lobster and Grey got the champion for his age division at Pacman.

Pacman contestents
Pacman contestents

That lovely Sunday together as a happy family, right after that lovely Saturday together as a community celebrating love. Well… that Sunday was the 12 anniversary of the day Adam and I stood before friends and family and declared to everyone that we loved each other, and we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. Twelve years, my friends. Many people talk about the ups and downs of marriage. I feel like our dozen years has had many, many ups and very few downs. If tomorrow was my wedding day, I would make my vows just as (or more) enthusiastically as I did 144 months ago.

Engagement photo - 99
Engagement photo ’99. I didn’t have a wedding picture, but this was taken after we were engaged.

*I think it may not have been waterproof, since those of use who used it turned to a crispy lobster red. I’m juuuust about at the peeling stage now. Yay.