Essays

HAPPY READING

Like a lot of people, I get the daily newspaper. And I have the fairly common morning routine of perusing it as I enjoy my hot cup of coffee and breakfast. Unlike most people, though, the first section I turn to is the obituaries.

It feels odd to admit, but I have come to like reading the obituaries. It started out as a curiosity: I simply wanted to see the average age of people in our area who recently passed away. But then one day three years ago, I came across the name of a gentleman who lived in my neighborhood. I pass by his house when I walk our dog several times a week, and he was almost always outside tending his beautiful flowers, or coming back from a neighborly visit next door. He always had a kind smile for me, an interesting story to tell, and a send-off of, “You have a blessed day now, young lady.” He was a true Southern gentleman, and I always turned off his block feeling lighter and blessed.

Seeing his name in the paper changed the obituaries for me. The entries were no longer just names and ages in black and white, the pictures were no longer of strangers. Now these were people I might have sat beside in a waiting room last week, stood in line behind the other day, or lived next to and whose little stories had became a happy part of my weekly routine. Reading the obituaries became a way to “keep up” with my neighbors and fellow town residents, and even to pay them a fleeting moment of respect.

Over the past three years, though, my obituary reading has morphed even a bit little more. What began as a quick glance out of curiosity and turned into a quick hunt for facts, has finally become a full, slow reading of each entry. And more often than not, I find myself smiling by the end.

Perhaps it seems morbid, twisted, but my smiling has nothing to do with their deaths. I wish no one any harm, sickness, sadness – ever. My smiles are caused by what their friends and family write about their lives. Very rarely does any other part of the newspaper tell the joyful details of someone’s life. Not even the wedding or birth announcements give really happy details, they’re all just facts of where, when, who, and what the bride was wearing. But an obituary tells readers about the person. We learn that Mrs. Smith was called “Ma” by all who knew her, how Mr. Brown had a passion for cooking, and that Mrs. Jones was a poet and fifty-year member of the local poetry society (a true obit that struck a personal cord). Often the families who write these mini biographies also tell about where the person was born and went to school, where they met and married their spouse, where they raised their kids and went to church. A life is recorded.

I still look through the rest of the news, but now it feels weird in comparison to reading the obituaries. It seems like a bizarre voyeurism to read about all the murders, car crashes, molestations, bodies found, burglaries, and of course, which politician was caught lying or cheating. The people in the obituaries may be deceased, and certainly none of them was perfect, but it feels more normal somehow, more human, to read about the lives that were lived right around me, than to read cold facts about ugly events. The sweet things said about those who’ve passed on, how they touched so many lives, how much they accomplished, stands in happy contrast to the discouraging, disturbing news that fills the rest of the newspaper. In fact, the obits are testimonies to life, proof that despite the murders, bad politics, and thefts, we can all persevere, and create full, happy lives worth writing – and reading – about.

 

Ownership is Nine-Tenths Appreciation

In a yard across the street behind my back fence stands an enormous, hero of a pine tree. In spring it’s draped in dainty wisteria; in winter, it’s one of the few green things standing. It hosts eagles and vultures, and dances cheerfully in winds that brutalize lesser trees. Its towering consistency has been reassuring to me in times of trouble, when seeing it reminded me there is Someone Greater in control. I used to wish it were my pine tree, growing in my yard. But then I realized I don’t really wish that, because if I owned it, it wouldn’t be mine.

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The most common meaning of “own” is, of course, “to possess”, to have something that belongs to you. But the same word (according to Webster) also means “to recognize” something, “to acknowledge” it – to know it. So to “own” something isn’t just a matter of having it in our possession, it’s also a matter of observing it, to become familiar with and appreciate it.

After several years of falling in love with the magnificent pine tree, I wanted to find out to whom it actually belonged. That took a while, as big trees look very different up close. I drove around the bordering neighborhood following trunks up to crowns, and crowns down their trunks until I finally found my “friend”. It takes up the majority of the clean and modest front yard where it lives, is neatly mulched with its own needles. The house is quaint and tidy, too, but as I drove past it my heart sank for the homeowners: they don’t know their tree the way I do. They can’t. Because it’s in their possession, on their property, they’ll never be able to see it the way I can. I’m sure they’re proud of their stately pine, perhaps they picnic beneath it, their kids play chase around it, but all they have of it, all they can see is its brown, knobby girth, and its discarded golden straw. Yet I know the great pine is so much more than that. So while it may belong to them, they don’t truly “own” it.

Certainly, there are many things that must be possessed to be appreciated, like a car, a home, a good pair of shoes. And of course there are folks who actually do possess entire mountains, own deeds to island beaches. But anyone with the ability to observe and delight in the mountains or the beach, owns them as equally, if differently, than those who hold the deeds.

And no, we cannot govern what we do not possess, cannot change what is not under our control, but perhaps that’s the freest type of ownership. How often, though, do things happen without our consent to what we (supposedly) control? I spend a lot of time and energy nurturing the trees on my property, mulching, raking leaves. But my opinion didn’t matter to the wind that felled one oak, or to the rot that stole another. To glean beauty, serenity from a property is to procure its highest value. To not have the chore of maintaining it is to be completely free to enjoy it.

I not only see the great pine beyond my fence, but I also see a whole forest made of trees in others’ yards. Here are more pines, white and live oaks, magnolias, and bay trees strung with various vines; and this neighborhood forest bustles with birds, squirrels, bats. This amazing view – any view unique to my vantage point – is all mine simply because I see it.

 

What it Is

Those rotten squirrels! My favorite quiet pastime is bird-watching; I love just gazing into my yard and seeing the wonderful variety of feathers and activity. But the squirrels always knew how to ruin the moment. They would eat most of the birdseed, dump the rest on the ground, and chew up all the feeders! I’ve lost a lot of nice birdfeeders, and even more birdseed, to squirrels. I’ve cluttered my yard with unsightly dome squirrel bafflers, hung feeders in hard to reach (and hard for me to see) places, spent (too much) money on feeders that only birds are supposed to be able to get seeds from. I have made desperate efforts to convince the squirrels to leave my bird feeders – my yard! – alone. But what was supposed to distract and discourage the squirrels unfortunately discouraged me as I watched them find ways around my fancy tricks, distracted me from enjoying my bird-watching time.

Then I began to observe them. Squirrels actually get along with most birds, can eat shoulder to wing with doves, nose to beak with cardinals. Occasionally, they’ll get in a blue jay’s way, or vice versa, and squawks and squeals ensue. But they all seem to have a system worked out to avoid that: eating in shifts. Most squirrels come eat first thing in the morning, then when they’re about done the birds come to breakfast. Often it’s the same pattern in the evening, so squabbles are pretty infrequent. But even when meals aren’t taken in their proper turn, everyone still gets along. According to Nature then, I should be able to have both the birds and the squirrels too.

Squirrel

So, I started removing the distractions. I took down the ugly bafflers. I replaced the “no squirrels allowed” feeders with simple, open, flat ones, made of either plastic or wood, and placed all of them in more accessible and visible locations. I found some less “bird specific,” less expensive seed, which allows me to buy more, and I try to be sure the feeders are always full. And because the squirrels can climb into and sit comfortably in each of the feeders, very little seed gets spilled out anymore.

Now I watch the beauty in my yard without frustration, without distractions, and I see so much more. I see the squirrels playing chase (the young ones are so skittish!); I see the brown thrashers following after squirrels as they dig through leaves for acorns, eagerly snatching up disrupted bugs. When I stopped trying to make my backyard bird feeding what I thought it should be, I started to appreciate what it is. When I took away the fancy tricks, the diversions, I started gaining more than I’d planned. When I stopped trying to make the squirrels be something they’re not, I learned to enjoy what they are.

And I haven’t lost a bird feeder since!

 

“Connection Lost”: Giving Up the Landline (July 29, 2015)

A few days ago our family joined the growing ranks of the landline-less: we let go, left ourselves clinging only to our cell phones. For our kids, who also each have their own cell phones, the transition was no big deal; if they gave it any thought it was only, “What took you so long?” But for my husband and me it felt like a real loss. And as he and I drove home from AT&T, neither of us had much to say other than we felt … untethered.

And we didn’t replace it.

I grew up always having a home phone. No matter what state or dwelling my family called home, no matter what style of phones we had – the ones with that frustrating curly cord, or the long antenna that had to be all the way up for the phone to work right – we had at least one, and a unique number to go with it. And of course, any time we gave up a home phone we immediately got another one. The same went for my husband’s family. But this time it was different. We got rid of the home line, a unique pattern of nine digits that somehow represented our family. And we didn’t replace it.

Yesterday, as I headed out the door to run a few errands, I left our seventeen year old in charge and reminded the kids to keep their cell phones on, charged, and with volumes up, because there is no home phone anymore. I have to admit, I got a little choked up as I said it. I realized that our family has one less thing in common now. It sounds silly I know, we all still live at the same address, after all, still share the same last name. But now we are only reachable by completely different numbers. If I need to reach my husband I call one number, for my middle kid another number, even if they’re all at home, sitting side by side on the couch. We’re all a little bit separated now. Perhaps it resonates with me because it’s a foreshadowing of the nest-leaving separations that our household will begin experiencing in the next year or two. Perhaps I was just being over-nostalgic, but as I pulled out of the driveway I felt unconnected.

I always thought of being “connected” as sharing something …

Some may offer the view that we are actually more connected now because we each have our very own phones with us every moment, whether we’re home or away. But I think that’s the new way of thinking about the term. I always thought of being “connected” as sharing something, something that brings people together, that unites them. Now the term seems to be more about having access to a service, about being reachable by some device, than sharing a common bond. But there’s no bond to be forged by simply being “online” at the same time as everyone else. And simply being able to call someone at any time doesn’t mean that something unique has brought us together, that we’re truly connected.

It’s strange not having a home phone anymore, but I’m getting used to the change. The change that might take me a while longer to get used to, though, is our society’s definition of just what it means to be “connected”.

 

Life is in the Messy

I clipped branches and brambles, and raked up four bags of yard trash in the backyard yesterday, but today I can barely tell that I worked in the yard at all. Muscadine vines still droop from the oak limbs, many seasons’ worth of old leaves are still piled along the back fence, and the tree that died and fell two years ago – yep, still where it fell, decaying more each day, sloughing off sheets of bark the size of notebook paper, and acting as another fence to gather even more leaves. It would take a week of Sundays for me to get the yard truly cleaned up; my husband tries to help by reminding me that I like the “natural look”, that this is all “natural trash”.

Messy Yard

But is it really “trash”? The yard isn’t filled with plastic wrappers, empty bottles, cardboard boxes, all those discards of once-useful things.  When I stop a minute and look closely, it’s obvious those dead logs, leaves, and vines are actually still of great use, Nature has found other purposes for them. In fact, there is more activity in and around the fallen tree now that it’s decaying than there was when it was upright and healthy. Sure the branches had offered a resting place for birds and squirrels, the few limb crotches were used for nests. But as it died (for a reason I still don’t know), I watched bugs take up residence, and then woodpeckers come to feast on them creating dozens of holes that the squirrels further enlarged. Those holes became homes for the squirrels and many other birds, far more than had nested in the tree when it was alive. (A rat tried to move in, too, but was promptly evicted.) In fact, the tree became a veritable apartment building, as full of activity as any city building! Even the “ground floor” bustled, teaming with carpenter ants, a sought-after meal for lizards, who in turn attracted a few snakes (harmless black racers). When the tree finally fell it no longer acted as residence – except to bugs, but they’ll live anywhere – but became a playground, a school, and a bigger snack bar. Several families of Carolina wrens, cardinals, blue jays, mocking birds, and brown thrashers have used the log to train their young ones in what makes a great meal and how to find it. And baby birds have strengthened their legs by bounding back and forth over the log, have tested their wings by leaping from it.

Old Vines

My own kids have learned from the “trash” in our messy yard. They’ve asked all sorts of questions as they’ve walked with me through the yard or sat with me on the patio. And they’ve made many discoveries on their own: they’ve befriended box turtles that hide in those piles of leaves along the fence, have been equally intrigued and grossed out by psychedelic-looking mushrooms, have watched wood rats nibbling seeds, been awed by hawks soaring overhead (no doubt hunting the rats), discovered the most amazing golden orb spider webs (complete with the gorgeous and very large spiders), and made collections of wildflowers and feathers. Yes, once in a while they have stumbled upon a dead bird or mouse, but there is wisdom to be gained from seeing all parts of life.

Gold Orb Spider

And life is in the messy. It’s in the live, flourishing, and overgrown; and it’s in the dead, fallen, and decaying. What newness, what discoveries, what experiences are found in the perfectly manicured? What wisdom can be gained from the always trimmed and tidy? If there is no activity to observe, or if it’s always predictable, no questions need to be asked. If all the leaves are raked up and all the rocks removed, where will the to-be-discovered hide?

I will probably still try to tame the vines and rake up more leaves, but I won’t see it as trash anymore, because my husband is right, I do like the “natural look”– I like all the living it brings into my life. ~