When I lifted you
onto Keyline’s broad back,
you clasped the pommel
like a scepter
and eyed the reins
in my hand.
Leading him at a walk (nothing more),
me on one side,
the rail on the other,
I didn’t see
the flint strike
your steely core,
the spark of fear,
your own North Star,
that would guide you through
high school’s fun house—
not in a straight line, but still—
draw you toward the jump
into your two-point,
finding your balance,
eyes up, trained
beyond the oxer,
on the vertical,
hands soft on the reins,
already practiced in the art
When I lifted you
Time passes differently in an office. As a freelancer, I work at home or the coffee shop or the library, but sometimes it makes sense to work onsite with a client for a few months. That’s when I notice the movement of time. It’s not that it goes faster or slower in an office or that it’s better or worse. It just goes differently. Sideways, maybe.
When my mom was in the hospital overnight, I spent the day with her. Mostly we were waiting—waiting for tests, for medication, for the doctor. The doctors and nurses were busy and efficient and I knew they were getting things done. But what happens in there isn’t life, or at least not normal life. Normal life is what happens outside the hospital walls. You can see it from the window. Two nurses taking a walk during lunch, a man unloading groceries from his trunk, a group of teenage girls sitting on the lawn, heads bent over their phones.
That’s the best comparison I can make to how I experience time in an office. I feel like I’m alongside life. I’m not unhappy. I just feel that something is missing, or that I’m missing something. After a few days in the office, the feeling starts to dissipate. After a few weeks, it’s almost gone.
It’s easy to understand why time moves differently for me inside an office. On my own, I have total control over my time and my days are varied. I’m used to moving directly from folding a load of laundry to interviewing a source to walking the dog. By comparison, a day in the office feels pretty monotone.
What’s more intriguing to me is why time stops moving differently, and quite quickly. It’s possible that I get used to it. People are adaptable, and you can get used to anything. (This is why college students raised in tidy homes adjust to dorm living.) Maybe being able to adjust is just nature’s way of helping out. But that answer seemed partial at best.
I was still thinking about it last week when I got an e-mail from the client. The team I’m doing work for was going out for lunch, she said. Would I like to join them? Sure, I said. While at lunch, I heard about children’s sports-related injuries, Halloween plans, and career paths. A few days later, in honor of all the people with October birthdays, donuts, bagels, and sliced apples magically appeared atop a bank of filing cabinets not far from my desk. All day people stopped to snack and chat.It’s an open office, so I overheard conversations about work, upcoming college visits, recipes. I remembered one of the best parts of working at an office: People.
And I think somewhere in there is the answer to why time begins to feel normal again. The more time I spend onsite, the better I get to know the people who work there. Then—not surprisingly, I know; none of this is rocket science—I feel connected and that’s when the shift occurs. That’s when time inside the office stops feeling like it’s operating alongside life and starts feeling like a part of life.
Or it could be the food. But that’s just six of one, half dozen of another. —Christine MacLean
A few weeks ago we celebrated Father’s Day early at my sister’s house. “Here,” she said, handing me our dad’s camera after lunch. “Would you take some pictures for Dad?” My dad is 80 and the tremors that come with his Parkinson’s disease make it difficult for him to hold the camera steady.
I was glad to do it, taking pictures of the family members gathered around the table and of Dad opening his presents. I documented the facts of the event. I assumed that’s what he wanted.
My father is a practical man, hard-working and smart as a whip, to use one of his expressions. On the farm when the hay baler broke down, he could fix it with a few tools, some spare parts he had on hand, and ingenuity. His solution wasn’t always typical, but it always got the job done.
I didn’t think of him as particularly creative; back then my definition of that word was narrower than it is now. My mother was the one with artistic sensibilities. She loved her flower garden and regularly pointed out nature’s beauty—the red wing blackbird’s song, the sunlight filtering through the morning mist, the smattering of Dutchman’s britches in the woods. She noticed beauty everywhere and frequently pointed it out to us.
My father noticed work everywhere and frequently pointed it out to us. He then issued a directive to us to do that work. Working three jobs himself, he hardly had time to sleep, let alone ponder life’s beauty and mystery. He was all about getting things done. The garden got planted. The beans got picked. The hay got baled. The cow got milked. Dinner got made. And, in good time, because all those things and many more got done day after day, year after year, his children got fed, clothed, and educated. My dad showed his love by providing for us and teaching us to provide for ourselves. Love was spelled W-O-R-K because it led to a better life for us. Other things—things like beauty, longing, the landscapes of his children’s inner lives—were superfluous and not worthy of his time and attention.
Or so I thought.
When my parents moved to a retirement village, my brother-in-law put hundreds of the pictures Dad had taken over the years onto a CD. Knowing an overwhelming job when he sees one, my brother-in-law didn’t try to organize the slides, so a picture of my sister’s second birthday in 1961 is followed by a picture of the trailer my mom lived in in 1954 while Dad was in the Air Force, which is followed by a picture of a hometown parade from 1968.
I was clicking through that CD, looking for a photo of my father as a young man to post in honor of Father’s Day. And in that visual mash-up of my dad’s days I saw that my dad—a retired farmer, roofer, and proud U.S. Postal worker—is also a photographer, taking the time to frame the shot so it tells a story. He intuitively grasps depth of field, light, and the elements of composition and, before Parkinson’s, he used them to great effect. In moments stolen from getting things done, he didn’t just tend to life’s logistics and practicalities. He attended to life’s moments of beauty and grace.
Most astounding of all to me, he attended to us and captured something of who we were at that moment. My parents had six children in nine years and we lived on a working farm. I knew I was loved. But life was busy. I felt not so much invisible as not seen. But it was my father who wasn’t seen, at least not in his entirety. I didn’t have much depth of field when I looked at him.
I wish I had figured all this out before Father’s Day, before I took his camera in hand and trained the lens on him. I wish I had been more mindful so, although I don’t have his skill or his eye, I could have at least tried for the kind of photo he would have taken—the kind that’s a distillation of life and not merely a record of the event. It would have been a much better way to honor the whole man than posting an old photo of him to Facebook.
I got it all wrong. But my dad got some things all right. –Christine MacLean
Photos courtesy of Mary Hilldore Photography
I bought fresh tulips ($7.99) at the grocery store the other day. They weren’t bad, but they are nothing like the 300,000 that will bloom in a few days here—20,000 in my neighborhood alone—courtesy of the City of Holland, Michigan. They’ll line my Historic District walking route, braving gale-force winds, withering heat, or snow, and sometimes all three in their short lives.
Together, the tulips create a riot of color. Individually, each is a floral temptress dressed to kill and experienced in the art of the come-on. “Pick me. No one will see,” whispers the Ollioules. “There are so very many of us! A few won’t be missed,” wheedles the Double Orange Emperor. “Go ahead and pick one,” coaxes the Black Parrot. “You know you want to.”
I do want to. I picture them in vases, gracing rooms throughout my house: on my back porch, on my nightstand and, most decadent of all, in my bathroom. But day after day I resist.
And so does everyone else.
In my town, with temptation at every turn, no one picks the city’s tulips—not the descendants of the Dutch who settled here, and not anyone who is a member of one of several ethnic groups that make up almost 30% of the population today.
You might think it’s because of the “per stem” fine imposed by the city, which, when I first moved here 20 years ago, I heard was $50/stem and recently heard was $150/stem. Except that the “per stem” fine is Holland’s own little urban legend, apparently. I checked the city ordinances and I didn’t see one that was tulip-specific. (The city can fine a tulip picker for violating Sec. 22-5: Mutilating, etc., public property; molesting etc., birds, animals, fish, etc.; all those etceteras offer quite a range of applicability.)
“It’s not that they are worried about the fine, anyway,” says my friend Debra, who lives near downtown. “It’s that they worry about what the neighbors will think.” It’s true. My walking partner and I sometimes see a tulip that’s been downed by natural causes. Neither of us dares carry it home (although it must be a crime of a different sort to abandon beauty where it’s sure to be trampled). For better or for worse, the community’s norms are strong.
“A person would have to be a real low-life to pick someone else’s tulips,” says my neighbor David Myers, author of a bajillion psychology books, including the one you probably had to read in college. “And, although there are such low-lifes,” he adds, “they are usually not the ones doing flower-arranging in their homes. My additional conjecture is that flower-lovers are at low risk for misdemeanor criminality.”
Residents who don’t love flowers have to at least tolerate them. In Holland, tulips literally come with the territory. If you live on any of several designated “Tulip Lane”s, curb-side tulips are not optional. The city plants them as a matter of course.
Figuratively speaking, respect for them also comes with the territory. “When you grow up in Holland, you just know that you don’t pick the tulips,” says my teenage son. “You’re socialized that way.”
The annual Tulip Time Festival plays a key role in that, and the festival’s Kinder Parade—a seemingly endless stream of costumed elementary students from the area schools—is a good example. Students are expected to march with their schools in the parade, regardless of ethnicity (or enthusiasm, for that matter). Schools typically make sure the children have costumes and provide busing to the staging area where the parade begins. The students smile and wave through the first mile, but visibly start to wilt during the second, especially when it’s hot.
The students’ extended families, who get up at 5:30 a.m. to get a prime spot on the parade route (but dutifully wait until 6:00 a.m., at the request of the city, to actually spread out their blankets and set up their chairs) watch them with adoring eyes. But the children must feel eyes of the broader community are upon them, too, sending the message “This is an important part of who we—and you—are.”
Finally, most people understand the tulips’ importance to the local economy. Tulip Time brings about $10 million in business to the area every year and without tulips, there is no Tulip Time. “The fact that there’s considerable public funding going into the tulip planting and maintaining means that there are many folks who watch out for the well-being of the tulips,” says Don Luidens, professor of sociology at Hope College in Holland.
I spoke to the city’s former police captain, in case I was just not hearing about crimes against tulips. He easily recalled the times the tulips had been truly vandalized—all three of them. In 20 years. “There’s no story here,” he told me. “There’s nothing here to write about.”
It’s hard to find examples of integrity these days. Daily we read about CEOs and elected officials lying with abandon and athletes cheating on and off the field. It happens here, too, occasionally. But when it comes to tulips, we stay on the straight and narrow. The Dutch Calvinist settlers here believed in total depravity, which includes the idea that, because of original sin, “all are inclined by nature to serve their own will and desires.” But I think we also have an innate longing for beauty and connection to nature, and to do the right thing. Maybe the real reason we don’t pick the tulips is that, for three weeks every spring, they satisfying those longings.
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that we don’t, and that’s remarkable to me. It doesn’t, however, seem to occur to residents that it could be any different. Or maybe it occurs to them but, like the police captain, they think there’s no story here. And that may be the most remarkable thing of all. –Christine MacLean
I once heard Lauren Winner suggest to a group of readers and writers that we give up reading for Lent. Inconceivable, I thought. Every Lent since then I’ve wondered if that’s precisely why I should give up reading.
I revisited it again this year, aloud, with Lois. She pointed me to Spirithome.com, which suggests giving up “anything which most relates to behaviors that are particularly sticky for you.” Reading qualifies. It would take a Herculean effort for me not to read for 40 days and nights, but I could do it. It would be a dazzling display of my willpower. That’s what bothers me. I would make it into something that’s all about me and what I can do, once I set my mind to it. This is not my understanding of what Lent is all about. As of last night, I still hadn’t settled on what to give up.
This morning I thought, We are five days into Lent. It may be a lost cause. I may be a lost cause.
I went to church because that is what I do on most Sunday mornings. The sermon was on trust, i.e., trusting that God knows what is best for us. And there it was–the thing more sticky for me than reading and more difficult to give up. Worry. I worry about everything with great skill. It takes up too much space in my life, crowding out other things, better things, like love, abundance, and joy. It was what I needed to give up for Lent. I basked in the peace that comes from making a good choice.
Thirty seconds later the worry set in. How? Short of serious self-medicating, how does someone like me stop worrying? It’s not like I haven’t tried it in the past. At best, I’ve been able to keep it at bay for a while. But that’s not what I wanted this time. I wanted to let it go, not hold it back.
It was between the end of the sermon and the benediction that I remembered something that would be the beginning of a breadcrumb trail for me. A therapist friend recently told me about acceptance commitment therapy (ACT). One part of ACT is labeling a thought as a thought instead of seeing it as reality. For example, one worry I have is that I won’t have enough money to retire. Using ACT, I’d think “There’s a thought” and then I’d let the thought float away. Thinking something does not make the thought real or true.
The breadcrumb trail continued when I remembered a discussion Lois and I had about the difference between faith and denial (or delusion). This is the kind of thing that I can ponder for a long time without reaching any conclusions, but I made some progress this time. For me, denial is “Everything will be okay,” while faith is “No matter what happens, I will be okay.” I don’t need to worry about things; I need only to remember that, whatever comes my way, I will be able to deal with it, accept it, get past it. And I don’t have to do it alone. (Lois’s thoughtful conclusion was “love more.”)
Mary Karr’s Lit, which we discussed at length, is also part of the trail. On page 234, Karr recounts a schizophrenic friend’s advice to her when she was struggling with believing in God’s existence:
“Get on your knees and find some quiet space inside yourself…Let go…Surrender, Mary…Yield up what scares you. Yield up what makes you want to scream and cry. Enter into that quiet. It’s a cathedral. It’s an empty football stadium with all the lights on. And pray to be an instrument of peace.”
Like Lauren Winner’s idea to not read during Lent and like my friend’s explanation of ACT, this passage stayed with me. That any of these things stayed with me is pretty amazing, considering about how much information skips across my brain without ever sinking in. That these ideas also lined themselves up and fell like dominoes this morning is remarkable.
Writing this post as a way of making sense of worrry and trust is the final crumb in the trail, or at least the final one for today. I might find another tomorrow. Maybe that’s how I can trust–by knowing that there will always be a breadcrumb trail left for me through friends, books, music, nature, and experience. Trust more. Worry less. “Act lit.” That’s my plan.
For the next 35 days (better late than never), I am yielding up what scares me—the Tea Party, global warming, texting drivers, my teenage son’s bathroom, bed bugs—and making room for something better. Come, Holy Spirit. –Christine MacLean
While I was brushing my teeth the other day (with the water off), I heard that Republicans have switched back to using Styrofoam in the Capitol instead of compostable food containers. They say that the money saved by making the switch can be used to reduce the deficit and that the “Green the Capitol” program didn’t help the environment much, anyway. Democrats disagree. Vehmently, of course.
I don’t know whom to believe. Like healthcare and education, being green is complex. Something that seems like it’s best for the environment might not be. Our dishwasher has been underperforming for a while (due to either its 17 years or companies changing their detergent formula in an effort to be more environmentally correct themselves), so I’ve been washing dishes by hand. I’d forgotten how much time washing all the day’s dishes by hand takes.
I was okay with it because I thought I was helping out the environment. I’m woefully late to the green scene—we don’t compost and I still use baggies and Saran Wrap, albeit guiltily. Washing dishes by hand made me feel environmentally virtuous. But whether or not hand-washing dishes actually is virtuous depends on what kind of dishwasher you have, which cycle you use, how you heat your water, and the process you use. Can you wash and rinse a dinner plate in about one cup of water? I can’t. According to treehugger.com, it’s almost impossible to be more efficient than a good automatic dishwasher, as long as you’re using good automatic dishwasher practices.
After that I decided to circumvent green complexity entirely by using less. When cooking, I estimate instead of using a measuring spoon. It’s one less thing to wash. Estimating amounts puts the meal at risk, especially those that call for cayenne pepper, but so far no one has noticed. My son did, however, notice when I went a step too far with my philosophy and drank grapefruit juice out of the container. He’s a teenager who has done that himself. Still, he didn’t approve. (In my defense, it was a moment of weakness, and I’m the only one who ever drinks grapefruit juice in our house.)
I also buy less at the grocery store. All the packaging makes me queasy, but I’m equally motivated by the work involved. The more I buy, the more work I create all the way around—bagging it, lugging it home, putting it away, not to mention the work involved in making money to pay for it. I’ve gotten a lot better at distinguishing want from need.
The same goes for clothes. I just don’t buy many anymore. I’ve had my red winter duffle coat for at least 18 years; when the lining wore out, a friend made a new lining for it that was nicer than the original. When the straps of my purse wore out, I started using an old purse that’s dated, but well made—so well made that it will last for another 10 years, by which time it will qualify as retro.
Perhaps because I buy so few new clothes, I resist parting with old ones, even when I’ve stopped wearing them. I made half-hearted attempts at cleaning out my closet several times last year, but it was still full of things I didn’t wear. When the Salvation Army offered to pick up donations at the curb a few weeks ago, I took another run at it.
We live downtown, a few blocks from a shelter for the homeless. At this time of year, I see a lot of people walk by without real winter coats. When, on the day I tackled my closet, I saw yet another woman in a sweatshirt, it occurred to me that it is morally and ethically wrong to hang onto clothing I don’t wear. If I have it, then someone who needs it doesn’t. For the first time it struck me as hoarding, and it trumped all my old excuses. There were still some things I clung to, but this time my closet is visibly emptier.
I’m not setting myself up as an example. Rather, admitting to all this is embarrassing. These are basic things, all of which I once knew and practiced but, I’m ashamed to say, set aside during the fat and stupid years. I’m now having to re-learn them.
“Reduce” is the first commandment of environmentalism and where I should have started. It was our way of life growing up on the farm. My father, a Christian and a Republican, taught us that God expects us to be stewards of the land. Even as little kids we knew what that meant—in all things, take what you need and no more. Whenever possible, reuse. He made it clear that God didn’t care if you were a kid, adult, or a Martian, for crying out loud—we are all stewards. Even Republicans and Democrats.
Which brings me back to those Stryfoam cups at the Capitol. Since the most environmentally friendly option—drinking straight from the container—truly is unacceptable (even if you are the only one who drinks that particular beverage), maybe the folks at the Capitol could do what I’m asking my family to do at home: use the same glass, water bottle, or travel mug all day.
That would give me lots of company where I am on this journey–at the beginning. And I’m not picky about the company. Bring on the Martians.–Christine MacLean
“We’re all done here. I don’t want to see you again,” said the cardiologist to my daughter as we left his office this morning. “Good-bye. Have a good life.”
She’s been seeing him since she was diagnosed at about six months with a ventricular septum defect—a hole between the lower chambers of her heart. From the very first visit, we knew it was small. It never affected her development. He never limited her or restricted her physical activities. “I see football players who have this,” he said. And that’s what my husband and I said, too, to each other: “He sees football players who have this.” Still, the doctor wanted to see her, every year at first, then every two, then every three.
In the years between visits, she grew. She loved passionately and she hated passionately. She had no trouble expressing her emotions. See Exhibits A and B, below:
“Weren’t your feelings hurt when I said I hated you?” she asked me recently. Fourteen now, still passionate but better able to moderate her emotions, she sees her young self through eyes that are more adult than child. I told her I never believed her, not for a moment.
“I really believed it when I said it,” she said. “I believed I hated you.”
But I knew her heart. I knew its nature as well as the cardiologist, with all his EKGs and echocardiograms and pulse oximetry, knew its form.
And now the form of her heart has caught up to its nature. The hole has completely closed, which is why her cardiologist doesn’t want to see her again. We left with a printout of her electrocardiogram, a parting gift.
I drove her back to school and went to the office to sign her in. She let me hug her before she headed to history class.
I thought about the hole, now closed, about how her whole life lies ahead of her, wide open, and about how I will never be all done here. No parent ever is.
It’s the end of the year, the traditional time for reflection (self-loathing, because of all you didn’t accomplish this year) and planning (setting yourself up for 2011 year-end self-loathing). If, like me, you just can’t gin up any enthusiasm for it, your time might be better spent reading notes written by irrate people and signs written by people who seem to treat quote marks as decorations. You’ll leave the year laughing, regardless of the kind of year you’ve had. (Photo courtesy of unnecessaryquotes.com.)
My wedding anniversary is later this month. That, coupled with all the press lately about how the institution of marriage is changing, has made me think of Age of Unreason. In that book, Charles Handy discusses mostly business ideas and his concept of a portfolio life (“a portfolio of activities–some we do for money, some for interest, some for pleasure, some for a cause”). But he also throws in the idea of a portfolio marriage. His vision isn’t one of changing marriage partners; his vision is one of changing patterns in a marriage–“a portfolio of possibilities,” he calls it.
Handy believes that in successful marriages spouses are able to flex over the lifetime of their relationship. Sometimes you get to take the lead, other times you play a supporting role. There will be times that your roles are ambiguous and overlap and other times your roles are clear and separate. Occasionally you might be “friendly rivals” in your careers and there may be periods when you each want, above all, just to pursue your own interests–maybe in retirement.
Writes Handy, “Too often a change in partner is the way many people match their need for a marriage with the need for change. . .If they do not realize that it is only the patterns which are changing, then it is the relationship which breaks.”
There are many reasons marriages founder, of course, but I do think Handy was on to something. Circumstances change, people change, relationships change, and we (the two people in the marriage) have to be open to all of it and adjust.
I think the same is true on a societal level. Almost 40% of people think that marriage is becoming obsolete, but if we (the collective we) could flex a little, say on the whole gay marriage thing, we could preserve what’s best about the institution–love, commitment, devotion, continuity. But if we don’t realize that it’s only the patterns of marriage that are changing, then the institution might break.
I don’t think it will, though. If you look at the history of marriage, as Stephanie Coontz did, what you realize is that marriage is the cockroach of institutions. It’s a survivor.