leaves, like grief, like stories

Today is the anniversary of my father’s death. 

The day is cold and has decided to rain, soaking the leaves that still cling to the grass no matter how often I rake them toward piles and toss them into the oversized yard-waste bin — which is not often enough, it seems. 

When my dad was alive, he would drive over in his truck after packing the bed with leaves from his own yard. My family would awaken to the sounds of his rhythmic raking, raking, raking. By the time we raced outside, clutching our own rakes, he would almost be done clearing our humble rectangle of lawn. 

My daughter, Jane, would race out to see him, and he would toss her into the bounty with instructions to stomp those leaves down, making room for more. She did this with enthusiasm, even as he showered her with more, especially as he showered her with more. 

A child holds herself in a certain way when her grandpa is about to pick her up and place her into the leaf-filled bed of an old pickup truck. She doesn’t raise her arms high as a toddler might. She stands, straight and tall, arms slightly spaced from her body — just enough to demonstrate he can hoist her under those arms without undo squirming. She knows she is small and must be easily lifted. When airborne, she raises her knees at just the right moment to clear the edge of the truck bed. She takes the stomping seriously. If she does the job right, he will trust her with it again. 

For 16 years, I was married. My husband wasn’t much for yard work, though he embraced all forms of fitness. My dad never understood the disconnect. Why would anyone seeking a workout avoid raking leaves and shoveling snow? He kept moving, my father did, and had little respect for those who couldn’t see taking care of responsibilities as rewarding exercise. 

So it is with mixed feelings I watch the rain soak the remaining leaves in the yard. My father is gone. I have no pickup truck. I pay an exorbitant price for a yard-waste container that never keeps pace with the volume of autumn. I rake and I rake, and then one day … I stop. I let whatever remains remain, let the rain soak and shrink it. I take comfort that I will have another chance to get it right, though not, this particular day reminds me, unlimited chances to get it right. 

Our leaf-clearing days end, so I have learned, and often before we are ready. 

I am unlike my father in the sense that I don’t feel compelled to pick up every leaf. I don’t feel driven to stay ever in motion. I am aware of my yard-work inadequacies, but not troubled by them. I’ve been responsible for all of it for some time; there is only so much perfection available these days. Plus, I find autumn leaves a rather pretty carpet.

Jane is so much more than the child holding in her excitement to gain entrance to the leaf pile. She is 19 now. Ivy League. She focuses on her academic and creative pursuits late into the night, stomping down the fluttering obstacles to make room for each new swirl of abundance. 

And I am still here, sitting quietly with notebook and pen, wrapped in a blanket given to me by my older brother who is freshly gone from this world. I am watching the leaves (like grief, like words, like stories) pile up before me, soaked and seasoned. 

Perhaps today I shall hold a few of them in my hands, turn them over and over again to see what’s on the other side. Raise them to my ears and listen for what, if anything,  they have to say. 

intentionally unimpressive

I host a public radio show. In that role, I juggle various expectations, one of which is to not “have an opinion.” I am a Journalist. Impartial. Serious. Trying-to-be-polished. 

I love my job. Even so, I find that over the years a certain part of me has begun to loosen and slip away. Passionate. Joyful. Artistic. 

I don’t write personal essays or stories much anymore, and when I do they tend to hesitate, buttoning themselves into tidy little envelopes so as not to offend or challenge or distress. My job is to help other people tell their stories. I have forgotten how to tell my own. 

I tell my daughter to be thoughtful about the vocation she chooses as she makes her way into the world. Every job will change you, I remind her. Choose one that changes you in a direction you want to be transformed. 

My job has made me calmer and more thoughtful. I’m a better listener to every voice, except perhaps my own. I’m a faster worker and more skeptical. I’m more careful with my words. Some of this is good, some of this is soul-draining. The worst part, by far, is that I am less wild. I used to spend most of my days in some sort of creative wilderness —even writing that now makes me cringe. What will people think of such a foolish statement?  

But it is my truth. I wandered in the world far more often. Libraries. Bookstores. Trails. I took my notebook with me and plopped myself onto blankets beside rivers. I waded into streams and stepped over piles of books to climb into bed and write in my pajamas. On a Tuesday. 

I didn’t care what anyone thought. I had opinions then, yes dozens of them: The moon is glorious. Ice cream is divine. Rain is sacred. 

Earlier this week, I interviewed a pastor for our little radio broadcast. He came here from somewhere and he came to plant a church. The church didn’t grow exactly like he expected it to. He followed the directions on the seed packet only to find something else blossoming. No matter. When he saw it wasn’t working, he simply changed his mind about what he had set out to do. 

Now, on Sunday mornings, we are “intentionally unimpressive,” he told me.

And so I have changed my mind about what I have set out to do. As it turns out, I’d like to have a little more fun. 

The blog lotus & rabbit started, for me, as a online sanctuary. Now I just want a place to goof off with words and sometimes with images. Every time I post something here, I reclaim that digital-room-of-my-own. I now allow myself to be unpolished, unedited, uncensored. If you’ve found this post, you must have, at some point, made an effort to get here. And so I hope you too have found a place you can be yourself.

How is your job/career/vocation changing you? Which part of your personal wildness do you want to reclaim? 

Maybe we can be intentionally unimpressive together. 

 

hanging up ~ a month of digital simplicity

DSC_3693

I’m not addicted to my cell phone.

Really.

Unfortunately, other people are addicted to my cell phone—as in, they expect me to answer said phone when it rings, and to respond to the various flashing and clicking of text messages that pose smoldering questions:

“Where are you?”

“Are you at home?”

“Can I call you?”

Other people expect me to receive email on this device (“Class is canceled” would have arrived 15 minutes before class was set to begin) and to keep my calendar updated electronically, mostly so I can confirm my availability without undue delay. To them, my phone is a computer … a lifestyle manager … a tracking device.

To me, my phone is … wait for it … a phone, albeit with a (Bonus!) zippy little camera.

This month, when I decided to turn my focus to simplifying my digital life, I knew where the struggle would lurk. I turned off my computer on the weekends (easy), eschewed electronic books all together (relieving), embarked on a blogging sabbatical (refreshing), and crafted all my writing by hand or on my manual typewriter before tackling revisions via word processing (time-consuming, yet awesome).

By mid-month I had also scrubbed my email inbox, my computer desktop, and the downloads folder on my laptop. For the record, I was not actually aware of the existence of a downloads folder on my laptop, so if we’re awarding points here, that should count for extra.

Chucking old computer files turned out to be much breezier than shuffling through boxes of paper. You click, you swipe, you empty the virtual trash. Whoosh! Celebrate with chocolate.

Sorting hundreds of digital photos proved more daunting, so I settled for backing those up via Dropbox and calling it good. Maybe I’ll learn to scrapbook someday. (Though I would almost certainly turn scrapbooking into a dizzying hobby of hoarding pretty paper and fancy cutters, so, best to avoid.)

Back to the cell phone. Because, as I said, no matter whatever mostly-feigned front of irresponsibility I submit to the world, my phone just keeps ringing and dinging.

Not too long ago, I didn’t even have a “mobile device.” I remember driving with my daughter when she was four or five and singing to herself in the back seat. Suddenly, she wanted to call my sister. We can’t call her, I explained. We don’t have a phone in our car. We giggled at the silliness of it all.

Today, a mere eight years later, I am expected to have a phone in the car, in the backyard, or somehow lashed to my body with elaborate cords of near-desperate connectivity—at all times. This expectation is not self-imposed. It is served with relish by a society that has come alarmingly close to perfecting instantaneous thought transfer from one human brain to another via overpriced technology.

Mostly I go along with this expectation with good enough humor. Other times I feel dangerously close to losing my mind. A few weeks after “upgrading” to my current phone, I was still frustrated by its tangles of noise and confusion. Learning how to use it made me feel snared, motivated, and inadequate at the same time.

“I don’t love it,” I admitted one day.

To which my daughter simply replied, “You’re not supposed to love it. It’s a phone.”

Wisdom. There’s no app for that.

Recently, this same child performed in her first official cello recital. I figured I’d better turn off my cell phone before the music began. The problem was, I didn’t know how to turn off my cell phone. I knew how to silence the ringer. I knew how to switch the setting to “Do Not Disturb.” But I had not yet mastered the art of making the little green and black rectangle that carries my address book, my alarm clock, and my most recent family photos actually power down into complete darkness.

Am I the only one troubled by that?

And so, I seriously considered reprogramming the thing to its factory settings and dropping it into the nearest trash receptacle or potted plant.

But, you know, my calendar is on there now, so how would I … oh wait. Maybe this addiction is mine to claim after all.

When my child started playing her cello piece, I naturally forgot all about the buzzing and blipping that is supposed to streamline my life. It turns out I don’t want to streamline my life. I want to live it.

The cello was invented in the 17th century. (For the record: I looked that up in an encyclopedia. Made of paper and cardboard and ink.)

My daughter, born at the dawning of the 21st century, coaxed such lovely and compelling music from the strings of her life that day—had one single note been interrupted by a mobile device I would have calmly ground the glass and metal and whatever-else-is-in-those-things to powder beneath my heel.

The other cellists from the school likewise blessed us with the eternal. Mozart (1756-1791). Bach (1685-1750). Boccherini (1743-1805). Shostakovich (1906-1975).

I didn’t take a single photograph or video of the cellists as they released lifetimes—centuries, really—of dedication, passion, and creativity. I was transfixed. Enchanted. Present.

I can easily describe in words the interruptions of today’s technobabble—the chimes and the blips, the dings and the beeps. I cannot, however, adequately describe the resonance of a cello. I cannot describe the surprising (and delighted?) chirping of the baby chickadee who hopped in front of my window this week trying to discern the nature of raindrops. I cannot adequately write about the rhythmic flapping of my dog’s ears as she shakes off motion itself and eases into a deep, deep rest at my feet.

These are sounds that must be settled in to with intention. These are sounds worth powering down to experience.

Perhaps the most radical act of simplicity in this culture of ours is to simply be—without recording or sharing or interrupting the unfurling of the present.

As another school year is folded away, so is my daughter’s school-district-issued Chromebook. She, as of yet, possesses no cell phone, no video games, no Facebook or Instagram account. What she does have is a bicycle and a backyard. A library. A cello. Time for the flowering of imagination. These gifts are among my best for her. She uses them abundantly, and she uses them well.

Welcome Summer. I hope you are not the last of your kind.

%d bloggers like this: