One Life

What if someone were to curate a museum exhibit of your life? What objects would you want included? What would they say about who you are and what matters to you? How would the accompanying plaque interpret the exhibit?

Here are some vignettes I picture as part of my “One Life” exhibit:

A seed picture, a macramé wall hanging, and a handwoven basket depicting a childhood of craft-learning at my grandmother’s feet which morphed into my would-be-hippie-street-fair-vendor period and morphed again into a more nuanced appreciation of handiwork and an unending need to work with my hands;

A shelf filled with books by the likes of Annie Dillard, Mark Twain, Mary Oliver, Robert Fulghum and more, some of which prompted me to read more while others influenced who I became and still others led me to become a writer myself;

A table holding a pencil, eraser, and notebook symbolizing my love of writing, an urge  that visited me randomly and infrequently until recently, when it became a near obsession;

A collection of LPs and CDs: classical—Mozart, Chopin, Mussorgsky, Beethoven (there was a time when I fantasized about becoming a concert pianist. That time was sandwiched between my Debbie Reynolds period and delusions of being a race car driver); folk—philosophical storysingers the likes of the Kingston Trio, Christine Lavin, John McCutcheon, and Carrie Newcomer who prick our consciences and prod us to action with thought-provoking messages, sometimes with some quirky humor thrown in; the Gaelic melodies of Enya and kin which, through their sheer ethereal beauty, transport my mind to the shores of my heritage;

A hammer, a saw, and a scattering of nails on a 2 x 4 piece of lumber portraying our once-in-a-lifetime homebuilding adventure;

A grouping of family heirlooms—perhaps a chair, a plate, a crocheted doily: items that tell the story of my attachment to family and family history;

A tent, a canoe, and a campfire all in the midst of a small square of outdoor space, testaments to my love of camping, water, and nature;

A collection of photo albums—more proof of my strong sense of family as well as my love of photography, nature, and wildlife;

A corner filled with bumper stickers, protest posters, sit-in images, and a couple of rabble-rousing speeches representing my passion for human rights, all sorts, and my years as an activist and leader in social change movements;

A few fruit- and vegetable-filled canning jars next to some colorful seed packets resting atop a small mound of well-composted garden soil—evidence of my gardening and food preservation heritage and interest.

All of this would, of course, be displayed against a backdrop of the Blue Ridge mountains while the sounds of bird songs and a waterfall are piped into the exhibit space.

Looked at as a whole, such an exhibit speaks to me of eclecticism (or perhaps the inability to settle on any one thing). I like to think it also speaks of an enthusiasm for life, a certain joie de vivre. But I see what isn’t there, too—in some cases, things I wish I’d had a chance to experience or was passionate about, but in truth am not; in others, things that once mattered and have been cast aside. I see the absence of objects that are critically important to other people but don’t matter a whit to me.

(Conspicuously absent is anything about my family—other than the references to the photo album and family heirloom exhibits. Make no mistake: they are, every single one of them, central to my life. But with this kind of exercise, it’s all too tempting to focus on other people and to turn the whole thing into a cliché, so I resist the urge.)

Chances are, there are also things that have simply skipped my mind in the moment. If I were to write this piece next week or next year, an entirely different collection of objects might appear.

I wonder what my exhibit would say to the casual observer? What about yours?

On Living Well

One of the important writers in my life is Robert Fulghum. In case you don’t recognize the name, the easiest way to identify him, though it’s far too limiting, is to say he’s the author of Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I never fail to be moved by his thinking and his insights. So, today, I’m cheating a little bit.  Instead of posting my own thoughts, I want to pass along something he wrote on his website not long ago because it speaks to me, because it’s important and I want to share it. (He even gave me permission. See?)

* * *

Please Note: This journal contains a wide variety of stuff — complete stories, bits and pieces, commentary, and who-knows-what else. As is always the case these days, the material is protected by copyright. On the other hand, I publish it here to be shared. Feel free to pass it on. Just give me credit. Fair enough?

Pack Creek Ranch, San Juan County, Utah.
The second week of September, 2018
Cooler weather, mix of sun and clouds, with occasional rain showers . . .

BED MAKING

A man I know well makes up his bed every morning.
He wakes up around 6:00, rises, puts on his robe, and – weather permitting – carries his duvet and two pillows outside to hang in the sunny morning air.
Then he turns on some music, makes coffee, takes a shower, and dresses.
The last act of this daily ritual is taking his sun-infused duvet and pillows
back inside to arrange on his bed, ready for his return at night.

Why these morning habits?
Why does he bother making up his bed every day?
Even he wonders sometimes.
Who cares?

After all, he is a single man, living alone – with no next-door neighbors.
His house is twenty five miles away from the nearest town.
He seldom has visitors – and he rarely entertains house guests.
Therefore, nobody is likely to have access to his private environment or witness his early morning rituals.
Nobody is going to know whether he makes his bed or not.
And yet . . . despite his solitary privacy – reliably – day after day, week after week, year in and year out – he makes up his bed.

Well . . . almost always . . .
But there was one exceptional week – three years ago.
When he fell into a deep black hole of existential despair.
And he just let go of the reins of his life.
He thinks of it now as The Week of Living Like a Loser.

The dirty dishes piled up in the kitchen sink for days.
The garbage cans were filled to overflowing.
In the refrigerator, moldy hair began growing on the leftovers.
The laundry accumulated in unwashed heaps.
The bathroom became a grotty mess.
And his bed was left unmade – a stale snarl of gnarly sheets and blankets.

And nobody – nobody – ever witnessed this fall from grace.

“Who cares – who gives a damn about how I live in my cave?” he thought.

And then . . . one morning . . . he finally crawled up out of his dung heap,
and looked around in dismay – a man living a homeless existence in his own home.
He dressed and drove away – fled to spend a day hiking along the river.
And stayed in town in a motel overnight.
The next day he came home to his house and himself – to put them back in order.

Who cared? Well . . . he did.
He could not live like a loser for long.
His daily morning ritual resumed, and has remained in place until this very day.

You might say the man has OCD – Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Perhaps. But that’s a speculative negative view.
Besides, if you witnessed the higgledy-piggledy unpredictable way he goes about
most days and weeks you could hardly say he is set in his ways.
One useful morning habit is not the sign of pervasive neurosis.
You might say the man simply learned something about his need for self-respect — in his environment and in his own skin.

The man I know recently saw a video of a commencement address by the Admiral who leads the U.S. Navy SEALS – the toughest, most highly-trained combat unit in any armed forces in the world.
The Admiral said that the first thing required of SEALS is simply to make their beds to a high standard every morning.
He said it was a matter of self-discipline, self-respect, and personal pride in paying reliable attention to a small, ordinary task.
Moreover, he explained, making your bed in the morning meant that no matter how arduous, dirty, or awful a day of training might be – a SEAL would have a personal place to come back to at the end of the day that was rightly welcoming.
The day would at least begin well and end well.

The man I’m writing about hasn’t applied to be a SEAL, but if he did, he could at least meet the first basic requirement – making his bed just right every day.
He, too, understands the pleasure of coming to the end of the day to a bed prepared as if he was an honored guest in his own home.
Part of that pleasure is lying down on sheets and pillows rinsed in the morning sunshine. And then closing his eyes in the deep quiet dark sleep of contentment.

I’ve been writing about a man I know quite well.
The man, of course, is me.
We are on very intimate terms.
I meet him in the bathroom mirror every morning and at the end of every day.
There he is – again and again.

Sometimes I think and write about him in the third person in order to consider his life objectively, and help him stay in touch with his better self.
Because he gets lazy and sloppy at times – in his house and in his mind.
He needs to be reminded that the truth of his character lies in what he thinks and does alone – in solitude, when nobody else is watching.
He needs to be reminded to be a special guest in his house and in his life –
even though that’s not always easy or simple or required.

But if he makes his bed every morning, the day will at least begin and end well.
And he can drift off to sleep knowing he has at least the most basic requirement for becoming a Navy SEAL.

Plato wrote that Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living.
Yet the man I know often goes about his life without examining it –
he doesn’t have time to be relentlessly, thoughtfully, reflective all the time.
He’s too busy just living through the tasks and opportunities of a given day.
If it is true that the unexamined life is not worth living, it is also true that the life not lived well is not worth examining.

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If you want more of Fulghum, click here.

 

The Holy in the Here and Now

The Holy in the Here and Now

Someone recently mentioned to me that dogs are more in tune with the earth than we humans. Think about it: they sense moods; they know when a storm is coming. In a car with the window down, they sniff out every scent—apparently with great joy. They know when their beloved human is due to arrive or even when someone unexpected is about to come up the drive.

Chalk it up to heightened sensory skills if you want. But the bottom line is dogs aren’t distracted by the sometimes inane things we allow to get in the way of capturing the moment. They don’t share our incessant ability to fret over the past and agonize about the future. They’re all about the present.

It’s a lucky person who can see what is holy in the here and now:

a child’s laughter,
the wind,
daffodils and cardinals,
redbuds and moss,
the wingbeat of bats,

the architecture of a tree,
a baby’s toes,
sister duets,
cloud shadows drifting across mountains,
the poetry of a shovel’s utility,

dew drops on a spider web,
the songs of spring peepers after an evening shower,
little red wagons,
a seed’s unfurling tiny leaves as they break through the soil,
baseball and kite-flying,

a cow’s bellow or the dignity of a donkey,
food from the field,
a friend’s voice,
leaf mold and mushrooms on the forest floor,
a letter in the mail,

embers of an evening campfire,
grapes fresh off the vine,
the kindness of a stranger,
hope,
a poem,

Spanish moss dripping from oak branches,
a pat on the back,
a smile across the room,
a snowflake caught on the tongue,
a mockingbird’s repertoire or a magpie’s iridescence.

The holy: it’s where we choose to look and how we choose to see.

 

 

The Ones Who Show Up

The Ones Who Show Up

As a society we’re often drawn to bigness. Philanthropy is equated to charitable giving in the millions. Grand gestures get attention. But what would we do without the small gestures? All that magnanimity we hail from people who can easily afford it would be meaningless without the little deeds of daily kindness, sacrifice, and responsibility from just plain folks. I refer to:

* the neighbor who brings groceries to the shut-in

* the gardener who grows a little extra to donate to homeless shelters

* the young woman who weekly organizes her mother-in-law’s medications

* the busy teacher who takes a few sacred moments to send a note of encouragement to a former student

* the friend who brings cookies and laughter to her terminally ill neighbor

* the co-worker who offers a much-needed compliment to a beleaguered colleague

* the harried nurse who still finds time to bring a bookmark to a patient who reads

* the child who writes chatty letters to her lonely grandparents

* the boys who shovel the snow-covered walk of someone recuperating from surgery

*the passerby who comes to the rescue of a drowning chipmunk

* the writer who sends nostalgic essays to aging relatives

* the man who cares for an acquaintance’s pets when she’s injured and hospitalized

* the many who give to a stranger’s health-related social media campaign, even when their own resources are scant

* the shopper who hands a dollar to the one in front whose bill was a bit bigger than his pocketbook

* the one who smiles at a stranger

* the young one, tired from a long day of grueling manual labor, who nevertheless offers his seat to the older one

* the teens who bring homemade goody boxes to residents of the nearby nursing home

* the foreign visitor who chases you down to return a dropped scarf in the parking lot

* the kid who carries an injured classmate’s books

* the retailer who takes precious time off from work to visit a stranger in prison

* the club members who de-litter a section of highway

* the customer who holds the door for a daughter and her wheelchair-bound father

* the stranger who catches a runaway shopping cart

* and the building custodians and sanitation workers, the electric line workers and snowplow drivers, the bedpan emptiers and street sweepers who do the dirty work at all hours of the day and night to make getting through each day easier for the rest of us.

Oh, that we would glorify these, the ones who show up, the ones who make a profound difference by changing not the world but what is three feet around them.

Little Things Mean A Lot

Little Things Mean A Lot

Have you ever looked around your home and thought about which things are especially meaningful to you? If you’re like me, it won’t be the big-ticket items, whatever they are. Instead, it will be the little things, sometimes things you’ve held onto for no apparent reason, things to which no one else would attach any importance.

I took a virtual house tour recently and came up with a few special items.

1. The one I’ve had the longest is a Little Golden Book, Busy Timmy. I have a few others, too, but this one captures my imagination for a variety of reasons. Stereotypical as these books were when I was an impressionable tyke, they were my ticket to the wonderful world of words. Timmy could do anything, it seemed. I was just as proud when I could do something on my own—that was the whole idea, after all. I loved the illustrations. And I learned to read. I’ve had this book for close to seventy years. (How is that even possible?!) It never gets old, and it tickles me no end to share it with my grands.

These books are well worn!

2. You’ve surely been asked the question, “If your house was on fire and you could save just one thing, what would it be?” Though I’m sure the true answer lies only in the experience of the moment, my answer to the hypothetical has always been “my photographs.” I’m addicted to picture-taking. I get even more joy from perusing old photos—snapshots of friends and family, vacation scenes, nature photography. I love it all. Of course, I’d never succeed in my photo-saving quest—my albums fill close to ten linear feet of my bookshelf real estate. And that’s not counting the boxes full of loose snapshots or the photos on external drives and SD cards. But I’d do my best. They’re memories of the richest sort. Visual links to time and place that only exist in memory. Treasured keepsakes to share with next generations whose only tie to their past lies in pictures and words.

3. A large, two-tone brown mixing bowl was a fixture in Mom’s kitchen for as long as I can remember—the kind you might find in an antique consignment shop these days. Everything from meatloaf to cake got mixed in that bowl. It’s long had a hair crack down one side, but I still use it almost daily. It wasn’t just part of my childhood; it was part of my learning to cook, an essential item in my 4-H foods project. I mixed up my prize-winning cornbread in it, and I still do today.

4. Growing up, I never cared all that much for framed crewel, embroidery, or cross-stitched pieces. They were too old-fashioned for my taste. But when my mother was breaking up housekeeping, I grabbed a few for old times’ sake. Today, they hang on my walls in places of honor. Each one has a story. This one’s my favorite.

5. My dad took up woodworking in retirement, following in the footsteps of a couple of his brothers. He carved walking sticks, made wooden chimes, turned earrings from exotic woods. I especially liked the clocks he made of aged barn wood. He enjoyed coming up with corny themes for them. (Corn was one of his specialties.) On the frame of mine, he etched, “Spring Time.” Each numeral is represented by a small metal spring. It makes me chuckle. It’s just so Dad.  

6. After decades of filling up precious bookshelf space with my old college textbooks (not to mention hauling them move after move), I finally admitted I no longer had a use for them. Gosh, the psychology texts were embarrassingly outdated. But there’s just something about those old books: their look, their heft, their scent. The slick pages alone send me into paroxysms of nostalgic joy. No doubt part of the allure is the childhood memory of my dad’s sole surviving college text. When I was eight years old, I tortured my younger brother with “school,” while I, as teacher, busily underlined sentences full of words I didn’t understand in that chicken husbandry book.

Still, I knew it was time. Wistfully and semi-regretfully, I began packing my old books in a donation box. Then I came upon my treasured Milton text. I temporarily set it to the side. Not for its content—I tried rereading a few lines. Crikey! No, it was for what it represents: a small seminar class where I was fully present. I loved the challenge of it. I dared to speak out. I got listened to, I belonged, I thrived.

I kept the book.

I could go on and on, but you get my drift. Sentimental trinkets, whose meaning often lies in what they represent rather than the objects themselves—these are the things I value. One of my favorite Top 40 hits during my teens was the song, “Little Things Mean A Lot,” sung by Joni James. “Blow me a kiss from across the room/Say I look nice when I’m not/Touch my hair as you pass my chair/Little things mean a lot . . . Don’t have to buy me diamonds and pearls/champagne, sables, and such/I never cared much for diamonds and pearls/’cause honestly honey they just cost money.” In spite of some fingernails-on-the-blackboard grammar, the song’s theme aligned with my ethos then and now.

I guess it shows.

What about you? Have you taken inventory of your most precious things? Where do they rank on the scale of monetary value? Do you love them for what they are or for what they signify? Or is it just me? Feel free to share in a comment.

 

Just Wondering

 

My grandfather, Joseph Bezzel Coates, b. 05/21/1895

My grampa was a fiend for learning.
Immediately he knew
radio’s potential
for education,
calling his boys
from their play
when “Music Appreciation Hour” aired.

Grampa was a fiend for hard work, too.
Too little of it
and the devil might
set up his workshop—
that’s the way Grampa saw it. Besides,
too much work needed doing
to trifle with idleness.

Hard work was like play for him
so he was known to say,
during an afternoon break from working in tobacco
or cotton or corn and the heat from the sun
blew the top off thermometers,
“Boys, while you’re resting,
let’s go shuck some corn.”

So, I wonder how Grampa would handle
the age of social media.
Surely he’d see the potential for good,
the opportunity for learning.
But day after day, hour upon hour
playing games on smartphones, scouring Facebook, or texting friends?
Would Grampa put up with that?

WWGD?
(What would Grampa do?)

REFLECTION

Creative Commons Introspective Chicken by Jonathan Lidbeck is licensed under CC BY 2.0

When I look in the mirror, I see
a much younger version of me–
not the face
that stares back from photographs,
so rudely honest
in their appraisals.

In truth, it’s not quite
the younger me I spy,
but the whole of myself–
the things a photo will never catch.

I see both youth and age,
twinkles and wrinkles;
I see emotion and belief,
passion and compassion;
I see history: life’s experience,
and expectation. Hope’s still there;
I see a life of love and, occasionally, hard knocks.

The whole of me
is much more interesting
than any Kodak moment
could ever be.

That’s not quite right;
the whole is what I see
each time my gaze lands
on anyone I love;

But in the mirror,
rather than a whole,
perhaps I see
just an edited me—
only what I want to see.