Small Town Vignettes

Eating dinner at the bowling alley

July 5, 2022

A man we’ve dubbed “Propane Joe” came up the hill to fill our tank today. He showed up unexpectedly a day early with a “Howdy” and a “Nice place ya got here,” then stuck around long after topping off our tank just “shootin’ the breeze.” People around here don’t seem to operate by the same clock I’m accustomed to, and no one’s ever in a hurry.

I smile to myself, recalling the words I’d recently read by Edward Abbey in his classic book Desert Solitaire, “We are preoccupied with time. If we could learn to love space as deeply as we are now obsessed with time, we might discover a new meaning in the phrase to live like men.

Two hours after his arrival, as Propane Joe was preparing to leave, he turned back to Arin, seemingly struck by inspiration, and casually called out over his shoulder, “Hey there, you want to be a volunteer sheriff?”

Arin shrugged and—without a second thought—replied, “Sure.”

“Great, I’ll call you sometime,” said Propane Joe as he hopped up into his truck and disappeared down our long dirt driveway.

~

Yesterday, I took Grayson into town to buy a pair of hiking boots. The owner of the store was (yet again) in no hurry, and as we visited, she discovered that we were new to the area and that Grayson ran cross country.

“Oh, Hal-the-cross-country-coach was just in here!” she exclaimed, picking up a pen. “I’ll give him your phone number and tell him to call you. Maybe you can get together with him over the summer!”

As she walked away to grab a piece of paper, Grayson glared at her and sneakily stuck up a tall middle finger before abruptly marching out of the store.

When I caught up with him moments later, I angrily demanded to know why he had flipped off someone who was so kindly trying to help us.

Scowling at me beneath one furrowed eyebrow as if I were the dumbest woman alive, he irritatedly explained, “I’m just not used to people being so nice. It makes me feel weird.”

Later that day, he asked to go back and apply for a job.

“I like that lady,” he definitively proclaimed. “She’s nice.”

Freed From Fungus

July 3, 2022

“Your Aspens look diseased,” my mom offhandedly remarks from the breakfast table that overlooks one of our many new-to-us Aspen groves. “You could get an arborist to come up here and take a look,” she suggests.

Instantly, my chest tightens with stress—yet another expense, one more item on my to-do list, and my head has yet to stop spinning from our move. We’ve been hemorrhaging money for the last six weeks—repairing stucco, mitigating radon, paying for moving trucks, and then another when we ran out of room. Besides, we are not talking about a few backyard Aspens; we’re talking about forests of Aspens, mountainsides of Aspens, and dollars being flushed down the toilet to our easily-clogged septic tank. I feel overwhelmed and discouraged as dreams collide with reality.

Later in the day, I sit at the same breakfast table staring dejectedly out the window at my diseased Aspens, practically panicked over the dead limbs and black festering fungus that has gouged holes out of the trees’ once healthy trunks. My eyes follow the trunks down to the earth  and then out, where they behold flexible saplings sprouting up in every direction.

In a moment of epiphany, I feel at once freer than a bird drifting on the breeze. This mountain has been here long before my presence and will remain long after my death. Aspens will grow, die, and regrow year after year—without my assistance or the advice of a professional arborist. The mountain doesn’t need me, the trees don’t need me, and I am not here to assume dominion over nature but merely to be a grateful participant and witness in the ebb and flow of life.

For the first time in a long while, I feel absolutely blissfully irrelevant and unnecessary. After twenty-one years of parenting, of being needed almost every second of every day, here is a place that requires nothing of me yet welcomes me still the same. I do not have to DO to earn my keep; I only have to BE.

My tensed muscles let down, and I suddenly grow tired—so, so tired. After weeks of striving and endless details, I feel, for the first time, able to rest. Aspens will live and die. The mountain will not crumble without my presence. No one needs me…no one needs me…no one needs me.

Relief floods my soul like a soothing balm. Already, this mountain has begun working its way inside of me. Perhaps I’ve had it all wrong. Perhaps it’s me that has the need.

~

In his book Desert Spirituality and Cultural Resistance, Beldon Lane asks the profound question, “What do you learn to love and what do you learn to ignore?” He elaborates (and forgive the lengthy quote, but I believe it to be quite relevant), “Imagine yourself out in a desert…There, your ‘image’ doesn’t matter in the least. Your presence is unneeded, superfluous. You lack any significance. Realizing this, you’re initially tempted to panic and run, as a result. But if you stay in the place that cares nothing about your persona, your false self, you may slowly begin to realize that you are saved in the end by the things that ignore you…the things that remind us we aren’t the center of the universe. You may sit there for a long while in the desert silence, perhaps in the shadow of a rock, studying the majestic stone face of the canyon cliff before you. And you ask yourself, ‘How did the canyon cliff change on the day of my divorce? How was that sandstone face moved on the day my father took his life when I was thirteen years old? How did that great expanse of rock shift on the day I admitted my dependence on alcohol, that I was totally powerless before it? How was that precipice altered on the day I admitted the shame I had carried all my life?

Surely the canyon cliff must have changed on the day your world fell apart. The whole earth must have fallen down the day your world fell to pieces. But you find in the silence there, that the canyon cliff didn’t change at all that day. You realize that something remained constant and unchanging in the midst of your pain. A silent immensity waited there, ready to accept every bit of grief and sorrow you could pour into it. The canyon, like God himself, was listening there for you, accepting you without any accusation, waiting there in silence. Strange as it sounds—and this is one of the great truths I can’t understand in my head but know to be so in my gut—something poignant happens in the canon cliff’s utter indifference of you. At that pivotal moment in your life, you know yourself for the first time to be truly loved.”

~

I rise from the kitchen table and succumb to an unheard-of mid-morning nap on the couch. Blanketed in sunbeams, I choose to ignore the festering fungus. I drift off to sleep in our new house on the face of a mountain where I am completely irrelevant.

In the end, we are saved by the things that ignore us.

Mundane Motherhood

I remember I broke down in tears after I gave birth naturally to my first child.  I had worked so hard and had been so strong that the tears of relief literally came rolling down my face.  Today, I look at my boys. We are well into teenage years and even though the hardest years might yet remain, I could almost cry in relief because those early years were just. so. much.  To all of you moms with young kids and babies… now that I’m on the other side and have regained (some) sense of sanity, know that you are amazing. You pick up the same toys day in and day out. You hold the hand of a new walker and let them go up and down the stairs fifty billion times. You listen to the same incessant chatter and even though you feel like you might lose your mind, you smile and encourage the novice talker.  You sit and endlessly keep a drawer from shutting on their little fingers just so they can learn how to open and close.  You have the strength to get through the mundane, the love and loyalty of a mother bear, and the patience of a saint. The bad thing is, you don’t feel like it. You end so many days feeling like a failure, like you did nothing worthwhile, like nothing got accomplished.  All I can say after being a stay at home mom for fifteen years so far, is that everything will one day be worth it. You’ll see a picture of your teenage boys sleeping in a truck after a long hunting weekend and every little mundane task, and every never ending day will be so, so worth it.  Give yourself room to acknowledge that you have a very. hard. job.  Respect yourself enough to take the time you need to regather, and love yourself enough to be kind.  The world can be cruel enough without your own self-condemnation.  I know that everyone says this, but you will blink and they will literally be grown.  But contrary to what others may say, I don’t find it sad or remorseful.  I find it beautiful.  I love seeing my kids grow into their own person.  I love having real, tough conversations with them.  I love seeing their passions and even their pains.  It all reminds me that as a mom, I have been allowed to co-create another life, another real, live, struggling person.  It is humbling beyond belief.  I know that I still have a very long way to go.  But for tonight, I can fall asleep believing in my heart that every seemingly pointless moment was all beyond worth it.

Walden Pond

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Standing on the edge of Thoreau’s Walden Pond

“I have had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof, and yet we often parted without being aware that we had come very near to one another…I have found it a singular luxury to talk across the pond to a companion on the opposite side. In my house we were so near that we could not begin to hear — we could not speak low enough to be heard; as when you throw two stones into calm water so near that they break each other’s undulations. If we are merely loquacious and loud talkers, then we can afford to stand very near together, cheek by jowl, and feel each other’s breath; but if we speak reservedly and thoughtfully, we want to be farther apart, that all animal heat and moisture may have a chance to evaporate. If we would enjoy the most intimate society with that in each of us which is without, or above, being spoken to, we must not only be silent, but commonly so far apart bodily that we cannot possibly hear each other’s voice in any case. Referred to this standard, speech is for the convenience of those who are hard of hearing; but there are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout.”

-Henry David Thoreau-

Reading Color

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Today I met the most amazing man.  He is an older gentleman from Greece and he writes (draws) icons for Orthodox churches. He was sweet and funny but what I found fascinating was his ability to see color.  Now anyone who knows me knows that I am a bit obsessed with color. I love the undertones, the way they change from wall to wall, from day to night. I love colors that look blue and gray and green all at once, to where you almost don’t know what color you’re looking at.  I would get a Ph.D. in color if there was such a thing!  This is very different than my husband, who when asked which paint swatch he likes best, responds with a shrug and says that they all look the same (bless his heart, as they say in the South).  But I digress…back to the iconographer. What amazed me about this man is that he not only can read color, he  knows how to MAKE it!  He can look at a color and know how much black and white and red and yellow and blue would be required to CREATE any color!  He knows what to add if it’s too dark or how much to add if it’s too light and what colors enhance the richness of others.  This might be silly but it honestly mesmerized me.  I’ve been thinking about it all day.  What talent and skill!

soulAnd so I have come to this thought tonight…what if we could look at people the way that this artist looks at color?  What if we could have insight into the creation of their personhood, how they became who they are…their ups and downs, sorrows and joys, the moments that have either broken or resurrected them, what they currently long for?  What if we could discern exactly what “color” to add to enhance other’s lives and beautify their existence?  How much more patient and compassionate would we all become?  What if we could learn to look at OURSELVES this way?!  What if today, instead of seeing my irritability and the dishes and the messes and everything that feels like a failure, what if I could look at myself like a color, complex with constantly changing undertones, drastically different in the morning light, but beautiful nonetheless.

But alas, my eye is not quite as developed as this skilled artisan.  I still see only in tones and shadows.  I do not look deep enough or close enough.  The late author Jonathan Swift writes that, “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”  Oh, that I might have the eyes to see that which remains hidden in every person, and the knowledge of what to add so that fullness of color might be achieved.   Perhaps over the course of my life, I will hone my skill and attain proficiency.  In the meantime, I will remain restlessly content to aspire to those who have inspired.