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.

I Went to the Woods

July 2, 2022

My eyes flickered open to the dark outline of a mountain, and I blinked repeatedly, willing the looming shape to disappear, yet simultaneously praying to God that it wouldn’t. This inner disparity made me feel instantly crazy, for the decision to move had been mine. I’d driven the real estate search (much to my husband’s delight); I’d scrawled out the list of geographical prerequisites for any potential homesites, and I’d packed the last box with my own two hands just barely over a week ago. Even so, the whole process had felt mechanical, as if something outside of myself had been set into motion, and I, although entirely capable, was somehow too paralyzed to stop it.

I’d been waging such an interior push-pull war since November of 2021 when Arin and I first decided to move, and half of me has spent the last seven months trying to convince my brain to revise its position. This fearful half has spent hours ranting at my daydreaming half to pull its head out of the clouds, to consider all the horrifying “what-ifs”—the bears, the mountain lions, the intermittent lack of cell phone reception. Besides, who did I think I was to tackle life in the woods? I was just a wimpy wannabe, a city-girl admirer of manicured nature, a fake, a phony, a fraud.

Yet despite my fearful self’s frantic ravings, my body calmly continued touching up paint, patching old holes in our walls, and methodically packing one cardboard box after another.

In hindsight, this journey started the first time I read Thoreau as a junior in high school. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…”

His words were instantly tattooed on my heart and became a life motto of sorts, yet they’ve remained dormant as simmering lava, tempered by whichever thin window pane of glass has separated me from the ruggedness of nature I’ve historically preferred to avoid. Like Goldilocks, I’ve tended to live life in the “just right” zone—neither too hot nor cold nor too hard or squishy soft. I’ve been perfectly satisfied to savor the great outdoors from the comfort of my climate-controlled office, curled up beneath a fuzzy blanket in my spider-free, herringbone, wing-backed chair.

But one morning, Thoreau’s words suddenly grew tired of simmering, and—with much roiling and smoking—started a violent upheaval.

The whole process began in earnest on August 29, 2021, when I found myself bawling over the pages of a Magnolia Home cookbook. There was Joanna Gaines in her full down-home simplicity and beauty, making cookies with her precious children, who were sprawled contently across her farmhouse countertop. On another blissful page, she was walking hand-in-hand to gather apples with her daughters. With every turned page, I cried harder and harder. Each photograph was like a knife in my heart, representing the life I had failed to create, the precious moments I’d lost (or never experienced) with my own five children.

Grayson, our son with Autism, had demanded much of my time and energy, leaving me steadily depleted and numb; and while I’ve never resented him, that day, I resented my reality. I closed the cookbook and shoved it away, unwilling to stomach one more stinking photo of Joanna Gaines and her annoyingly adorable kids. I went to sleep feeling brokenhearted, angry and cheated—as if someone had stolen a part of my life and there was not enough time remaining to salvage the leftover shards.

The following morning, Thoreau’s words thundered in my ears, no longer willing to be largely ignored, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…”

What would it look like to live the second half of life deliberately? I wondered, gazing through a thin windowpane of glass. If the highest good in life is union with God and our fellow man as I believe it to be, how can I live intentionally, in a way that facilitates more moments of potential unity? How can I soak up every precious moment of whatever life I have left on this earth? How can I grow more fully present, fully aware, fully available? And what “things,” for me, are the best conduits to living in such a way?

I pulled out my journal a started a new list: nature, time, freedom, solitude, silence, space, love…

Seven months later, I awoke on a mountain.

Intentional Silence

undulations“Individuals, like nations, must have suitable broad and natural boundaries, even a considerable neutral ground, between them. 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.”

~An Excerpt from Walden by Henry David Thoreau~

 

It has been said that words are the most base form of communication.  In a time when everyone is concerned with finding their voice in the world, we forget the impact and importance of silence.  When we speak constantly, people stop listening.  Words that might be valuable, get lost in the sheer projectile volume.  Life gets big and chaotic and turbulent and if we rise to challenge it, we immediately begin to get lost in the noise.  This does not necessitate a passive, apathetic approach to life.  Practically, we must rise to meet to whatever stands before us.  But we cannot forget the value of first withdrawing into ourselves to subdue our inner turmoil.  When life gets big, we must get small.  If we mindlessly rush headfirst into pandemonium, we will only add to the cacophony and delirium.  We feel the need to say the right thing, do the right thing, and forget that silence is also a viable course of action.  How many problems in life could potentially be solved by just stopping, and waiting in silence?  The Tao Te Ching states that, “No one can make muddy water clear, but if one is patient, and it is allowed to remain still, it may gradually become clear of itself.”  If we are able to resist the urge to constantly fill time and space with empty and urgent words, silence becomes not only an ideal choice but also a familiar and comforting companion as well.

 

We can make our minds so like still water

That beings gather about us that they may see, 

It may be, their own images, 

And so live for a moment with a clearer,

Perhaps even with a fiercer life

Because of our quiet.

~The Celtic Twilight by William Butler Yeats~

                                                                                                               

 

 

 

 

 

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-