All the Lives

Working out at a gym is an intentionally intimate practice: listen to your breath; stretch your muscles; raise your heart rate; push yourself. It’s necessary, this self-care, to be able to walk and lift with confidence, to sleep well, to control weight. Despite the focus on oneself, exercise is, however, done amid people arriving, leaving, working, playing—living.

How is your son doing?”

“You must be excited about your up-coming trip.”

“Did you have a good Christmas with your daughter?”

The other morning through floor to ceiling windows from my perch on an exercise bike, I witnessed a cutting from life to remind me of a line from Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.

“All these lives,” she said. “All the stories we never know (125).”

Cars lined up diagonally in two rows in a parking lot. Vehicles rolled along a four lane street lined with small businesses. Directly across the lot was a building under renovation. Over successive months workers had replaced the roof and the exterior walls of the long neglected building, their work slowly transforming what had been a run down bar into a coffee shop.

On that particular chilly morning — during the hiatus between Christmas and New Years when people go to work or shop — three men were working on siding on the north wall of the building.

Two burly men stood on an orange boom lift platform: the man with a nail gun wore a lime green hoodie under a navy jacket; the other man with a hammer wore a brown hooded jacket. One man was slim and had a short blond beard; his lime colored hood flashed against the bland siding, a bright contrast next to the brown jacketed man, whose dark face, framed by his thick jacket hood, appeared weathered, his body heavy. The men’s foggy exhalations floated into the icy air.

Below beside a red pick up truck and a stack of siding was a worker in a red jacket who was sending boards up via a vertical lift to the two men.

The rhythmic placement of siding beginning at the parking lot with the red jacketed man had suddenly stopped three boards down from the roof’s edge. The two workers on the high platform turned and stood facing the parking lot below. The darker, larger man in the brown jacket lit a cigarette and leaned forward, his right hand gesturing as he smoked with it, his left arm folded across the platform’s railing, his body bent as if a great weight had fallen upon his back.

The lime green hooded man placed his left hand on his companion’s shoulder and leaned slightly toward him. He then moved and rested his arm across the brown man’s shoulders. The darker man raised his left hand to his eyes as if to wipe them. His shoulders convulsed with sobs. He kept wiping his face. The finished cigarette dropped to the ground below. The two men stood side to side, a suspended silence holding them together until they parted. They lightly punched each others’ shoulders. They looked down at the red jacketed man who reached for and sent up another board.

They took the board, lifted it into place, aligning and nailing it. Another board rose toward them.

The exercise cycle has a timer. I had been cycling for twenty-four minutes. Yoga class was next.

The Season for Trimming

December 2019

Our bay window this December does not sparkle with the usual Christmas tree. Our mantel is not festooned with greenery and candles. The Santa Claus collection remains in its plastic tub along with silk poinsettias and ceramic angels. Between our Thanksgiving and Christmas travels there is only enough time and energy for best choices. What, we asked ourselves, would we display? A poinsettia, reindeer dolls, a wood sculpture of Gabriel blowing his horn, a winter painting, a small sculpted crèche puzzle, and a stuffed quintet of Old Saint Nicks.

Thus inspired we asked ourselves: What if our holiday moments could also be trimmed—to a few precious memories—what would they be? Revealing an economy associated with aging, the longevity of generations, and faithful practice, we chose these four events

A large orange given out on Christmas Eve at a rural Presbyterian church. Oranges in Herb’s Kansas childhood were a rare and delicious treat. This must have also been true for my father and mother, for an orange was always at the bottom of my Christmas stocking, along with some walnuts to crack. Our children also received an easy to peel orange or tangerine in their stockings on Christmas morning. One year a grandchild asked, Why do you always put tangerines in our stockings when we can just go into the kitchen and get one? It’s not exactly about the fruit, we answered.

Candlelight services on Christmas Eve. The singing of Silent Night with candles held high expresses reverence and love, the light’s reflections merging faces, holding them in holiness. We anticipate this vision every Christmas Eve. You may recall that in 1914 an unofficial Christmas truce occurred along the Western Front. Following the truce, German Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch recalled: “How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”. A candlelight service acts as a truce in our own discordant lives. To hold the candle aloft and sing is a truly simple act, void of complications, bursting with spiritual and historical significance.

Baking Cookies. Every December Herb bakes dozens of cookies, their aromas of chocolate, fruit, and nuts sweetening our home. The cookies go to our loved ones and to shut ins. He was inspired by his Aunt Marianne who baked in her farm kitchen over a hundred dozen cookies every year until she couldn’t. Her cookies were delivered to the local nursing home, the church, and the homes of friends and family. The other day I walked into the house to the delicious aroma of almond biscotti and oatmeal raisin cookies. The baking had begun, and so had allusions to bright woolen mittens, hot chocolate, jingle bells, and caroling. Cookies and caroling go together. The caroling might be off key but the cookies will be yummy.

Making gifts. One year we worked together to make eight crèches. I drew the patterns of tiny people and animals, Herb cut out the forms with his jig saw, and I painted them. Because we ran out of time, we never finished one for ourselves. An unfinished crèche awaits assembly in a drawer in my studio. It would be good to assemble the unfinished pieces, repeat the act of attention to symbols and meaning.

Although imagination was necessary, our hands made these memories of the heart. We like what Rabbi Johnathan Sacks says about optimism and hope: “Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better. Hope is the belief that we can make things better.” [quoted in TheBulwark.com, requoted in The Week, December 13, 2019.]

We lean on ancient prophesies, impatient with their centennial evolutions, our hands making tiny contributions, the results usually invisible, except in our imagination or as confirmed in history. Civilization improves at an erratic and sluggish pace, requires courage and ingenuity, depends upon intentional living, reason and faith. To participate we must suspend fears. Disrupters have always existed. Consider these: Isaiah, Jesus of Nazareth, Genghis Kahn, King Henry VIII, Mahatma Gandhi. Which ones worked toward a peaceable kingdom, acting not for themselves but under a higher authority for others? It is within that hope for a peaceable kingdom that our hands work.

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.

—Isaiah 11:6

Strange Rain

It rained last night and this morning—

Not water but walnut leaves—

Fronds fluttering down,

Filling the view between

the deck and the cedar tree.

It’s an eerie invasion,

A silent, steady bombardment.

The dogs bark and hide.

We stare transfixed

by the relentless shedding,

Denuding the stalwart tree,

Blanketing the lawn,

Burying the boxwood hedge—

As if we had never before

Seen such a sight —

Tho this walnut tree

with its enormous limbs

is almost

As old as us.

Whose Turn Is It?

In the 1960’s European automakers introduced the VW beetle to Americans. Automakers were introducing economy cars Iike the Ford Falcon and Chevy Corvair to compete with gas guzzlers like my father’s Oldsmobile. The general opinion at the time was if a vehicle used less gas, it would not only cost less to drive but emit less CO2.

Smog was a problem visible from my parent’s home above San Francisco Bay. When the air was still, a gray pall hung heavily over the Bay Area. Because smog was a concern in cities, scientists were investigating the contribution of CO2 and human activity upon air quality and climate change. Most of the chatter at the time wasn’t about climate change and extinctions but about smog, air quality, and dependence upon foreign oil.

That my boyfriend drove a cute yellow VW bug hardly qualified me as an activist. Greenpeace was seven years away. Conversations about conservation were mild compared to today’s discussions—rising seas, reducing bird populations, gasping lungs, raging mega fires, critical food production, and corporate irresponsibility. Nevertheless, I had adopted a progressive attitude toward conservation, even though I was uninformed about climate science.

During a break between semesters, I naively brought up with my father the issue of industrial pollution and our country’s dependency upon gas and oil. “What are we going to do about this?” Which truthfully meant what was he going to do?

My father seemed like an important man, connected to influential people. Surely he could do something. My flattering but futile challenge must have amused him.

He lowered his newspaper just enough to peer at me above the headlines. “I’ll leave that problem for your generation to solve,” he answered.

Decades later I was perched on a stool in a daughter’s kitchen when she launched into a worry session about climate change. “What are we going to do?” Suddenly my father’s response was resonantly present, like the Spirit of Missed Opportunity.

Indeed what are we going to do? The planet is indeed heating up, the problem recklessly compounding, the problem outrunning us.

Listening to this daughter’s rant, I suggested we do something manageable.

She looked at me expectantly.

“Text your handyman to remind him we need the hinges he forgot to leave last week.” A total reversal of topic, but it would produce a practical result.

Chuckling, she sent the text, although she didn’t give up easily. My dodge had had only a temporary effect. She pressed on until I, like my father, said, “Let’s hope the grandchildren will be able to enact solutions.”

The infamous rhetorical dodge.

THE CONFESSION—

We fill four closets with clothes, most of them non-essential, many of them made from Textiles contributing to chemical pollution.

When purchasing our vehicles, we prefer power to economy.

We use gas powered yard equipment.

We use plastic.

We depend on the grid. We like our electronics, our internet connection, our iPhones, our fancy appliances.

The only things we have done to offset climate change are plant trees, carry our own reusable water bottles and bags, compost kitchen and yard trash, use LED lighting, and turn off our lights.

What and who are we waiting for? Corporations? Government? Neighbors? Friends? Grandchildren?

I’m stuck at the opinion stage and “What can we do?”

Anything. Something. Plant more trees. Turn off the lights. Consume less. Install solar. Buy a hybrid or electronic vehicle.

And nag the grandkids: “You gotta do something! Don’t copy us.” We knew we had inherited the earth and all its blessings, but have done virtually nothing, except consume.