How Lovely Are Thy Branches

The year—2020– being what it is and all (let’s just skip that part) we decided to put up our Christmas tree.

In recent Christmas seasons our artificial tree remained stored in the garage attic because we said we were usually away visiting people. In truth, to move the tree from storage to the living room was a pain in the patoot.

The tree’s container, a large cardboard box, lay across rafters in the garage attic. After wrestling the box to the top of the attic stairs, Herb would slip a grappling hook into a handhold at the top of the box. Using a long rope, he would lower the box slowly down the stairs while I stood beneath as the brake. We would then lift the box onto a dolly and wheel it down the driveway and across the sidewalk to the front door. Assembly was the easy part—until we had to reverse the process in order to move the tree back to the attic, without the assistance of gravity.

Since there will be no traveling to other homes this year, we are in charge of our own Christmas cheer. Wrestling with our tree actually sounded like fun. A challenge to conquer. We imagined the brightly lit tree, framed in the bay window while we sipped hot cocoa and listened to music.

Down the tree came—grappling hook, dolly, out of the box and assembled.

“Did you know we bought this tree in 2008?” Said Herb as he plugged in the lights. The bottom of the tree sparkled brightly, but the top half was as dark as night. Pitiful.

“Just leave it to me,” said my man. I disappeared. I learned a long time ago not to hang around while our hero attempted an improbable fixit. Two hours later he admitted defeat.

“We could go cut a cedar down,” I said. He gave me the look, You have got to be kidding. “Or we could go to Hobby Lobby and buy a new one. If the parking lot is full, we will just forget it.” Off we went in the SUV. The closer we got to Hobby Lobby, the busier the traffic. You’d think because of the pandemic people would know to stay home. Oh the irony. The store’s parking lot was packed with circling cars, ours included.

So we went home without a tree. What did it matter? Just a Christmas tree. Not important. Sigh. We packed up the broken tree and took it to the street, in the rain.

A week later Amazon delivery brought a big box to our doorstep. In it was a tree just the right size for two old folks to move without a grappling hook, a rope, and a dolly. An angel had decided we should not be alone at Christmas without a brightly lit tree.

The tree sparkles with bright red balls and white lights. Angels carved from wood by Herb in 1992 hang on its branches. It’s the best tree ever!


Winter blew in yesterday. Our wind chimes sung like crazy baritones with each sweep of air. The crimson leaves of the Japanese maple flew across the deck, the leaves shimmering in the rain. Barren trees, fifty feet tall or more — sycamore, oak, maple, hackberry, and walnut — scrambled skyward in the woods beyond our yard. The tallest branches glow like gold as the sun sets.

Each morning a pregnant squirrel feeds on our buff colored papyrus in the little pond. She scampers across a railing, drops to the rim of the pond, and snaps a papyrus stem free. This morning she broke loose a long stem with its fluffy seed panicle and carried it across a bench and up onto a railing. Holding the stem in its front paws and quickly nibbling along the softer stem parts, the squirrel managed a balancing act akin to a high wire acrobat.

Our bird feeder attracts cardinals, chickadees, and sparrows. Their pecking and squirrel raids cause seeds to fall onto the the deck where doves flock for lunch. The arrival of birds flying through to feed mark the change of seasons. Just as the wrens announce spring, the disappearance of yellow finches mark winter’s inevitable chill.

These scenes are visible through French doors from the same room where we read and watch television. It’s a deliberate choice to savor the view through the windows, to take in the natural order of plants and creatures, to enjoy the repetitive reminder of the natural order of life versus the sincere attempts of humans to analyze experience and opine on behaviors.

“Have you been outside recently,” I asked a grandchild who was studying intently for exams.

“Not lately,” she said.

“All you have to do is turn the door knob and step outside; it’s not hard at all.”

Squirrel finishes breakfast of papyrus stems.

Cooling Down

Fall has arrived here in Kentucky, and with it, relief from the hot humid, heavy, air of July and August. A heat index of 105 degrees Fahrenheit is not uncommon here.

Air conditioning (patented as “an apparatus for treating air”) was invented by Willis Carrier in 1902. By 1947 [according to the history of air conditioning,] 43,000 homes had air conditioning systems. Neither my or my husband’s family was one of those homes.

Herb’s mother hung wet dish towels in open windows. Because the house lacked electricity, there were no fans. Relief was attained from an outdoor shower rigged from a horse tank atop a storm cellar. Tepid water was gravity fed through a pipe from the well on a hill above the homesite. Today Herb has a tolerance for heat that withers me.

My family lived in temperate San Mateo County, just south of San Francisco. When the heat rose, we cranked open windows to catch ocean breezes. I did, however, as a child, experience hot, humid summer air at my grandparents’ farm in Nebraska. We slept on cots on a screened-in side porch. A fan swung back and forth over the glistening bodies of my brothers and me as we drifted off, the sounds of crickets and cows sifting through the heavy night air.

In the past my husband and I have fled Kentucky in July and sometimes in August, to Appalachia or the Rockies. Under current pandemic circumstances, however, we are not going anywhere but the grocery store and occasionally Lowe’s.

In August our two air conditioners hum incessantly after ten in the morning until midnight while we work at living well within the comfort of home.

The truth is we are privileged. We aren’t worn out from the heat. We aren’t hanging dish towels in our windows or sleeping on a screened-in side porch. We aren’t struggling to earn a living or stay well in 100 degree heat. We indeed aren’t struggling in any remarkable way.

A different kind of heat has blown across our country. In August Federal troops descended upon the city of Portland ostensibly to protect the federal courthouse. This week in Louisville, Kentucky, protestors are incensed and angry over the indictment of wanton endangerment in a police shooting of Breonna Taylor, asleep in her bed, after a no knock warrant went awry. On September 12, a four hour stand off occurred between police and protestors in Rochester, NY.

A rising tide of people are pushing back against the country’s embedded system of racism. The largest body of demonstrators in the history of our country have decided they have seen and heard enough. How I wish the cooling rhetoric of peace and reason could have blown through the air of protest! What if walking arm in arm and chanting “I can’t breathe,” or shouting “Say her name!” had caused a pause in the system just long enough for some reasoned adjustments to the systemic racism in our country, especially in law enforcement and justice.

Instead we are witnessing the equivalent of raising the thermostat to 200 degrees when the temperature outside is 90.

Once the heat rises and shifts to rage, violence follows. Everyone becomes accountable for violence. Even I feel accountable in my comfortable spot in Bowling Green, where I feed birds, plant trees, and write.

I’ve been called out for being naive for speaking for mercy, peace, and love. I take the accusation as a compliment. I’d rather be naive than silent. If we have the collective ingenuity to invent air conditioning and cool millions of buildings, we have the means for addressing systemic racism and promoting peaceful solutions. We need to learn how to cool ourselves and our neighbors, together, not hidden apart, not accusing, not attacking.

It’s not always easy to remember simple ways to promote peace and justice. Here are some suggestions:

Strengthen your knowledge. Read nonfiction articles and books based on serious research.

Donate to food pantries.

Hire people—housekeepers, gardeners, carpenters.

Wear a mask.

Deliver food to shut ins.

Visit your neighbors.

Contribute to community equity movements.

Share vegetables from the garden.

Make supportive phone calls.

Send cards.

Write about mercy and love.

Speak out but with grace.

Pray for justice and mercy. Thank you, Martin Luther King.

And stop wondering why that guy with the dark brown complexion is driving a Mercedes.

I’d like to hear what my readers would add to this list.

Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 7:12.

What can we do?

My studio is my refuge. Light pours in through second story double windows. Beyond is a wooded neighborhood and nearby a large shade tree.

My husband has his own refuge, his man cave, a woodworking shop in one half of our garage. Surrounded by saws, sanders, and assorted tools, he disappears for hours everyday to make birdhouses or repair furniture.

We text each other as if we were in separate buildings, away at work. We meet for happy hour on the deck and share dinner. Occasionally we eat lunch at the same time. He makes coffee for us in the morning and pancakes for Saturday breakfast. We start each day together and finish together.

For landscaping chores, we team up, as we did this last week in the fence row. A vigorous privet hedge and young mulberry trees had invaded a working path separating our neighbor’s yard from ours. With gloves, boots, water bottles, lawn chairs, chain saw, loppers, lawn tractor and trailer—we went armed into the overgrown brush. For three mornings I sawed, he cut, we pulled and pushed and hauled away. Although we rested often in our lawn chairs, we cleared a 50 by 4 foot swath.

A friend says to me, “We have everything we need, food, shelter, each other, and lots of space.” It’s a reminder not to take simplicity for granted, not to complain, not to desire unnecessarily.

Yesterday a young friend said, “I love my husband dearly, and since we have been isolated together, I have realized I truly like him!” Together they’ve fashioned a nursery for their soon-to-be-born son, something she says they would not have normally done together.

I could be writing about the horrors of the pandemic, or of social justice, or anarchy, or cultural wars, or politics and religion. But I wouldn’t do a good job. I’m not an authority on those subjects, although I try to be reasonably informed.

There was a time when I marched for social justice and fair government. I wrote letters, called my representatives, sat on boards, worked on community service projects, advocated for children and the homeless. I still believe in those activities.

We are, however, realistic. We have little time left. The pandemic has squeezed time for us, given us boundaries within which we must shelter together. We cannot visit with our children. We cannot travel. We cannot… well, we cannot and cannot. So what can we do?

I can paint. Recently I’ve been painting scenes from Cape Cod. I spent hours looking at photos, searching for ideas.

Here’s a common trope I painted, just for fun. I can’t exhibit it because it’s a copy of a well known photograph.

My Virtual Beach Plein Air Painting

Normally between April and October Herb donates his birdhouses to fundraiser auctions held by nonprofit organizations. Because those auctions haven’t been held, he has accumulated some fifty birdhouses ready for when community life resumes or when an alternative to live auctions is conceived.

Gretchen’s Choice

In the meantime birds in our yard enjoy palatial homes.

We can complicate our life with frustration over cancellations and restrictions or we can use what we have. We have chosen possibility not disability, courage not discouragement. Sometimes, he shouts. Sometimes I weep. Some days we collapse. But mostly we carry forth accepting our place in time and acting on faith.

Excerpted From Joshua 1:1-9

I won’t give up on you; I won’t leave you…Don’t get off track, either left or right, so as to make sure you get where you’re going.

Surely how we use our bodies and minds will encourage others to live with courage and faith. Believe. We are not alone.